Monday, October 7, 2013

China President in Malaysia

Last week when I was in Kuala Lumpur, I happened to stay at the Shangri-la KL and on the day of my checkout on Thursday, I suddenly found that many security equipment (scanners etc) had been installed overnight at the hotel entrance. After I looked at the morning papers, I realised that the President of China, Xi Jin Ping, was making his first official visit to Malaysia and he was staying at the same hotel ... although most definitely in a bigger room than mine  :-)

It seems that Malaysia is in the top three as far as trade volume with China, after Japan and South Korea. In fact the Malaysia-China trade volume is expected to cross US$100 billion soon.

I'm interested to know out of this US$100 billion, how much is Malaysian exports to China vs how much is Malaysia importing from China ... Any guesses?

President Xi had discussions with PM Najib Razak. They agreed to significantly upgrade bilateral ties, boost military cooperation and nearly triple two-way trade. Both countries would also step up efforts to promote regional stability.

Xi's trip to Malaysia and Indonesia (where he will attend the APEC conference in Bali) is seen as a "charm offensive" - an attempt by Beijing to gain some leverage over ASEAN - especially over the handling of territorial disputes and also to counter-balance Washington's so-called pivot to Asia.

With President Barack Obama needing to scrap his Asian tour due to the US government shutdown (due to his standoff with the Republican Party), Xi's meetings with regional leaders in Asia have grabbed the limelight even more.

This cartoon captures the situation quite well, I thought ...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Adventures in Myanmar (Part 2)

More about my memorable trip to Myanmar.

In Nay Pyi Taw, we stayed at Thingaha Hotel, which has a very interesting modern design (see photo).

Fig 1: Thingaha Hotel, Nay Pyi Taw

As mentioned in Part 1, Nay Pyi Taw is the political capital of Myanmar. This city, created in 2005, is where all the ministries were relocated back in 2008. There have been many stories giving the rationale for this massive move  - for instance, one justified that Nay Pyi Taw, being in central Myanmar, would be harder for foreign forces to invade, compared to the coastal Yangon; another reason was that because Nay Pyi Taw is so far from Yangon or Mandalay, it will be tougher for would-be dissenters to bring their protests to the capital. I don't know whether any of these reasons have any grounding in reality, but they are certainly interesting perspectives. It is possible that the leaders simply had a visionary plan to reduce congestion in Yangon and revitalise another part of the country by creating a brand new city. Who really knows?

We had a session with the Speaker of the Lower House, Thura U Shwe Mann at the Parliament Building (and what a magnificent building complex it is!). Some political observers have tipped that this gent could be the next President of Myanmar. In Myanmar, the President is selected by the Parliament, not through public voting. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also announced that she is willing to be selected for Presidency, but in her case the current constitution would need to be amended to allow that. At the moment, Daw Suu is prohibited from becoming President because she was married to a foreigner.

 Fig 2: Approaching the Parliament House, Nay Pyi Daw

Here you see us in one of meeting halls within the Parliament Complex, meeting with the Speaker and other members of Parliament. It was a HUGE room. Look at the size of that painting !

Fig 3: Meeting with Thura U Shwe Mann & other Parliamentarians

The highlight for the day was having a Q&A session with "The Lady" - democracy icon and opposition MP, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fig 4: Session with The Lady

I got to speak briefly with her and even got an autographed copy of her book "Letters From Burma" ...

Yes, it was a memorable trip ...

I learnt my first Burmese word "Mingalabar"
That seems to be a general purpose term meaning "Hello" or "Good morning/afternoon".

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Adventures in Myanmar (Part 1)

In early July 2013, I fulfilled a long-desired wish and made my first trip to Myanmar. In this and a few subsequent postings, I intend to explore various facets of this country that I've been watching for some time now.

Myanmar (or Burma, as some Western nations still refer to it) was under military dictatorship for more than five decades (since 1962) and has been isolated by Western nations (specifically US, EU and Australia) through economic sanctions for many years. Myanmar's main ally is China, which is by far the largest investor in the country, which beside being resource-rich is also of significant geopolitical interest. ASEAN countries have preferred an approach of "constructive engagement" with Myanmar, admitting it in 2000 to their premier regional club.

Let's go back a few years ... This lead article from The Economist of 23rd July 2005 (which I got from my archives) laments how the different approaches had (at that point) not made much headway.

Fig 1: The Economist on Myanmar (July 23rd 2005)

Of course, many will know Myanmar/Burma because the world has been constantly reminded of its existence and its plight by the democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. More about this remarkable individual later.

Myanmar started showing signs of opening up and working towards political and economic reforms in 2010 when President Thein Sein took the helm, and pushed for a more open and democratic system of government. Since then the isolationist policies of the West have been steadily easing. As a result, there appears now to be a kind of "gold rush" mentality as many Western corporations make a beeline for the country to explore the so-called "Asia's Last Frontier".

In my first (and second) visits, I went to two cities, Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw.

Fig 2: Map of Myanmar

Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the former capital, largest city and commercial hub of country.

Fig 3: Some street shots from Yangon as we drove past

Nay Pyi Taw (sometimes spelt in different ways, such as Napidaw or Naypyidaw) is the political capital of Myanmar, which the generals created out of a greenfield location in central Myanmar in 2005. Since 2008, most of the ministries have been moved into this new location, and a city of more than a million people now exists. It has wide roads, large roundabouts with beautiful landscaping, with parks and new buildings springing up everywhere.

My first trip was with the US-ASEAN Business Council, where a group of representatives from two dozen US companies visited senior leaders of the country. It was an eye-opening trip.

Fig 4: Travelling with the US-ASEAN Business Council members

On my first trip, we took a six hour bus journey from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw. The second time, we flew (about an hour).

Fig 5: Had a chance to try the local brew ... which is really pretty good !

On the last evening in Yangon, I decided to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Huge and very  impressive especially at twilight, when the sky started to darken and the lighting came on.

Fig 6: At the famous Shwedagon Pagoda

Myanmar is still in the early stages of development, compared to some of its neighbours. It will take time for it to address the various challenges it faces at this stage. The way I see it, among the country's priorities are:
- building up the ELECTRICITY infrastructure (blackouts are still too common and only 13 percent of households have access to a regular electrical suupply)
- improving the TRANSPORTATION sector (roads, rail, seaports and airports), which are still very under-developed, with a few exceptions (e.g. Nay Pyi Taw airport is quite modern)
- a strong refocus on EDUCATION, which has been somewhat neglected over the past decades (I am told that some 15 percent of Myanmar children don't go to school, and the average number of years of education is 4 years)
- enhancing AGRICULTURAL output. Some 70 pefcent of the population are engaged in agriculture, but the productivity is markedly lower than comparable ASEAN countries.

Let me pause here. I will go into other aspects of my observations in future postings.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

ASEAN Snapshots

My professional activities takes me to many of the countries in ASEAN and this is a region where I have immense interest in. ASEAN stands for Association of South East Asian Nations, and comprises the countries of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. So far, I have been to every ASEAN country except for Myanmar (a point I hope to remedy very soon :).

I came across this other chart, which I thought was very interesting and gives a snapshot of ASEAN's economic matters. I will add more ASEAN related charts to this posting later.

Check back regularly for more info ...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Life Lessons from an Old Boardgame

I came across an old board game recently. It was a game I played as a child. It was called "CAREERS" and distributed by Parker Brothers. Any of you remember this game?

Fig 1

Fig 2

Looking back at the objectives of the game, it struck me how close to real life it is, and what some of us might have subliminally learnt while playing it. At the beginning of the game, all the players need to decide on their "Success Formula" (or what they envision to be the meaning of success for themselves). The Success Formula is made of three components: money, fame and happiness, and the total should equal 60 points. For instance, a player might decide to have 30 Money points, 20 Fame points and 10 Happiness points (30+20+10=60). Another player might go for 10 Money points, 10 Fame points and 40 Happiness points (10+10+40=60). And so on.

This is what the score sheet looks like ...

Fig 3

Then the game begins, and the players toss dice and move their counters around the board, picking up or losing points in different ways. There are also Experience and Opportunity cards that the players draw when they land on certain squares on the board. The winner is the one who first achieves his or her Success Formula.

As a child, I played this game without thinking too much about what it meant. Now having gone through five decades of life, I appreciate how close to reality this formula (albeit simple) is. Some people value money above most else, and have focused on accumulating as much wealth as they can. Others want the limelight and strive to achieve fame at all costs.. Fame and fortune ... what more could one ask for? Yet one can't help noting that some of the richest or most famous people aren't necessarily the happiest.

The basis of the Careers game, and of life in general, is that it's all about maintaining a balance. Over-emphasis on one area at the expense of another can lead to dissatisfaction and misery. How much money does one need? How much fame? And how much happiness?  We may not really write down our Success Formula of our real life, but I'd guess if probed, most of us have some implicit balance that drives us each day.

What do you think? Do share your views.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great Dates This Year

From the title of this post, I suspect some of you readers are thinking of other things. Now, now ... don't let your imagination run away with you.

I'm referring of course to calendar dates, many of which have been quite interesting and special in this year 2011.

This posting will examine some of these dates ...

First there were the dates containing all 1's

1st Jan 2011 (1.1.11)
11th Jan 2011 (11.1.11)
1st Nov (1.11.11) and
11th Nov (11..11.11) ... this one is seen to be especially auspicious.

Then there were the so-called "binary dates" - binary meaning 1 and 0, as anyone with a bit of computer knowledge knows. So these dates were

10th Jan (10.1.11)
1st Oct (1.10.11)
10th Oct (10.10.11) and
11th Oct (11.10.11)

Then there were what I like to call "double barrel" dates, which mirrors or repeats the numeric sequence in an interesting way, like

11th Feb (11.02.2011
and two days ago, it was 20th Nov (20.11.2011)

Dates like 11.1.11, 11.11.11, 11.02.2011 are symmetrical dates, because you can read the digits from left or right. Sentences with the same properties are called palindromes. Some famous ones are "Able was I ere I saw Elba" (supposedly said by Napolean after he was exiled to the Island of Elba) and "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama" (about the  chap, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who developed the Panama Canal) ...

But I'm digressing. We were talking about calendar dates. Dates have been studied by astrologers, historians, numerologists, and feng shui consultants over the ages. I'm not a believer in any special significance of these numbers, but I realise that a proportion of the world's population do, and mass behaviour have a certain way of making things happen. Those of you who dabble in the stock market will know something about this ...

Anyway, whatever the date, have a nice day.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Football Diplomacy

Now THIS is how neighbouring countries should settle their differences .... in a Football Match !

Last Saturday in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, a friendly match was played between government officials from Cambodia and officials from Thailand. The teams were made up of Thai and Cambodian politicians. The Cambodia team was led by premier Hun Sen while the Thai team was led by former Thai premier Somchai Wongsawat. A 50,000 strong crowd assembled to watch and support the match, which was held to showcase the improving ties between the neighbours.

In his pre-match speech, the Cambodian premier Hun Sen said that "the nightmare era" between the nations, who engaged in deadly border clashes earlier this year, was over. "Today is a historic event in Cambodia-Thailand relations," he proclaimed.

PM Hun Sen led his side to a 10-7 victory in the match. Look at the man kick ...

Hun Sen, wearing a red number "9" shirt, smiled broadly as he scored his fourth goal in the final minutes to loud cheers.

The cordial game came just a week after new Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra made her first official trip to Phnom Penh, quickly followed by a visit from her brother Thaksin, a close friend of Hun Sen. Ties between the two nations have warmed significantly since Yingluck's July election win, backed by her sibling.

Under previous Thai leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the border row, which centres around the ancient Preah Vihear temple complex, twice escalated into heavy fighting this year, prompting Phnom Penh to take the dispute to the United Nation's highest court. In July, the Hague-based International Court of Justice asked both nations to withdraw military personnel from around the temple, which both sides have heeded.

All this reminds me of another sport being used in high-profile diplomacy. Back in the 1970s, the exchange of ping-pong (table tennis) players between the USA and People's Republic of China led to the thawing of diplomatic relations. This so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy paved the way for President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 and the much-publicised meeting with Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

Yes, indeed sports should be used more to cement ties between neighbouring nations. I say "Play on"  ....