Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions for 2009

Every year I make my New Year Resolutions, which I pen down on a little scrap of paper and carry around the folded scrap in my wallet for the entire year. Usually in early December, I extricate the secret list and invariably admit guiltily to myself that I haven't achieved half as much as I'd have liked. Some resolutions then get carried forward to the following year, some get redefined in much less ambitious terms, and still others are quietly dropped :-(

This year, I'm going to take a rather different approach. For starters, I won't burden myself with an unrealistic list of 46 items, like what I did one year not too long ago. I'll keep it a much shorter list. Maybe 12-15 items at most. And secondly, it won't be a secret list any more as I will be displaying it in this blog entry for the whole world ... well, at least the dozen or so kind souls who actually bother to read my online rants. Ha! That should introduce a little more pressure on myself to keep my resolutions real and to put more effort into trying to attain them.

So here are my resolutions for 2009 ... (drum roll please)

- reduce weight by 10 lbs & get more physically fit thru gym or other sport
(building abs was one of my previous resolutions, long discarded & I'm not putting it back in!)
- undergo medical & dental checks

- increase my Mandarin vocab by 500 characters
- learn a new language (to basic level)
- read at least 2 books a month, with more focus on humanities (esp history & classics)

- make a real sales impact in at least 3 countries
- deepen & extend domain expertise
- get one book published or at least manuscript-ready
(out of the several I've been working on & off for the past three years)
- put "E-Gov in Asia" online

- get Family Journal + Book 2 typed & collated
- take two family holidays (one preferably to somewhere we've never visited)
- visit Sabah & Brunei on family tree exploration

- improve financial position

Social & Spiritual
- improve ties with family & friends (eg organise a re-union of ex-schoolmates)
- get actively involved with a charity organisation

Well, that's it folks. A very happy new year to all !

And be sure to watch out for my end-2009 review of these resolutions.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What I'm Reading - December 2008

I was travelling most of December. Business trip in Sweden & Oslo, followed by a week's vacation in London. So most of my reading was done on planes, in airport lounges and briefly before bed. All books this month. No audio and video of any significance. These were the three books I picked up ...

"Parky" is the autobiography of Michael Parkinson, the British television interviewer who is almost legendary in the UK. I remember watching his programmes while I was a student in the UK back in the late 70's to early 80's. His interviews were sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes funny, always classy and entertaining. His programme, simply called "Parkinson", ran from 1971 to 1982, and from 1989 to 2007. When I was watching his shows, he was with BBC, but I read that he switched to ITV in the later years. By his own reckoning, he has interviewed some 2,000 of the world's most famous people. So this was an autobiography I was waiting to read for some time. You could say I was a fan.

"Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom" is by Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta. I first heard of this book directly from Matthew Fraser, who is a Facebook friend. The book deals with the whole Web 2.0 social networking revolution. The book makes the point that while the Web 2.0 has reached a tipping point socially, especially among the so called 'Generation V' (also called digital natives or millenial generation by other literature) who feel completely at ease in the online world, it is facing powerful forces of resistance from members of corporations, including boardroom members. Based on my own experience dealing with eGovernment initiatives, I know this, and I was interested in specific examples of how such resistance could be managed, and broadly of how Web 2.0 could be effectively employed by business and government.

"We-Think" is by Charles Leadbeater. I've just started on this book. I saw the author speak at my company Cisco's Public Services Summit which I participated in at Stockholm, Sweden earlier this month. Charlie is a persuasive and entertaining speaker, and made good points about how businesses and governments needed to change to take advantage of the opportunities of "mass collaboration" and "mass innovation", and not be stuck in the old paradigm of "mass production". The inside cover of the book ends with this .. "The generation growing up with the web will not be content to remain spectators. They want to be players and this is their slogan: we think therefore we are". Also check out the website.

Portobello & Other Street Markets

I spent a relaxing week in London earlier in December 2008. When in London, one of the places we always enjoy visiting is Portobello Road, particularly on Saturdays when the street market comes alive. Portabello Market is popular with tourists and locals alike. For those who are not acquainted with this place, the road swings between Notting Hill Gate and Ladbroke Grove tube stations. It is best to go earlier in the morning (say 9 or 9:30), and allow at least 3 hours for a leisurely walk, slowly browsing through the various stalls & shops, and taking short breaks at the cafes.

On Portobello, one will find numerous antique shops and stalls, a rich collection of old sketches, books and maps, different kinds of food stalls and cafes, multiple souvenir shops, some fashionable clothing shops and buskers. It can get pretty crowded at parts of the road, so always a good idea to keep an eye on your wallet or handbag.

The origins of name Portobello is quite interesting. The area was originally a farm, which was named after Puerto Bello in the Caribbean, in memory of Admiral Vernon who captured the town in 1739. Since then the area became built up with houses, shopfronts and the street market. Some of the pubs are named Portobello Gold and Portobello Star, references to those heady seafaring days off the Spanish Main. One of the antiques arcades is known as the Admiral Vernon.

Portobello has always been a popular tourist site, but it really shot to global view in the early 2000's as one of London's trendiest streets after the movie "Notting Hill", starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, was released in 1999. People started coming from all over the world to visit the street they had seen in the popular film. There was a property boom in the vicinity soon after. I heard a sad story of someone selling their apartment in the area only a month before the movie came out. What a lost opportunity to cash in!

I particularly liked looking at one stall with a wide selection of old cameras on display ...

One of the busking groups playing when we were there was a trio called "Hightown Crows". Tneir music was very catchy and entertaining, albeit a little rough on the edges. They even flogged their with own CD of original tunes at ten quid each.

Rustic street markets complement shiny shopping malls, and often give a city more character. I've often wondered why street markets (both day and night versions) work in some places and not in others. For instance, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) has its bustling Petaling Street / Chinatown night market. Taipei has a couple of popular night markets, notably Shilin and Snake Alley. In Hong Kong, there is Temple Street market in Kowloon. Bangkok has a few, at the Suan Luam and Patpong areas. Seoul has an area called Dongdaemun (which I visited on one of my trips and wrote about in a previous blog entry). Singapore has tried setting up street markets but they don't seem to have lasted - I remember one of them was around Kallang.
This is by no means comprehensive, but I concluded that a few factors do help to make street markets successful: (1) some local culture & history helps - eg. Portobello's antiques draw a lot of collectors; (2) some unstructuredness is appealing. Visitors like the slightly haphazard way some street markets are set up, and how individual entrepreneurs innovate to attract customers; (3) pirated or counterfeit goods on sale - despite many raids by authorities, the market for fake bags, watches, garments, CDs and DVDs still remains a definite draw; (4) ability for buskers and other performers to showcase their talents, without being too worried about being arrested (5) some element of sleeze helps - need I say more?

Long live street markets !

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snippets from Scandinavia

I had the opportunity to visit Stockholm (Sweden) and Oslo (Norway) last week, as part of a global Public Services Summit my company Cisco organized and sponsored. It was my first visit to both of these cities, and a most enlightening and enjoyable time in terms of insights and experiences. This entry touches on some of the highlights ...

The Summit was in Stockholm and we had a few hundred public sector officials from all around the world attending, hosted by Cisco and the City of Stockholm. A panel of world-class speakers - including Lawrence Lessig, Charles Leadbeater, author of book "We-Think", and Prof Carlotta Perez, author of the book "Technology Revolutions & Financial Capital" (picture left) - shared ideas over two days. Intellectually riveting stuff.

I also had a chance to see some of the City of Stockholm, and was particularly impressed by the Vasa Museum, which housed a remarkably well-preserved ship "Vasa" from the early 17th century, the old city Gamla Stan, which looked like a small town right out of a history book, as well as some of Stockholm's environmental conservation projects. It was a fascinating city and quite a pity that I had limited time to see the sights. Definitely worth a future visit to this "Capital of Scandinavia", as Stockholm calls itself ...

On day 3 we took a private train to Oslo, and attended the Nobel Peace Prize dinner and concert. This year's Peace Prize laurette was Martti Ahtisaari, who was honoured for his peace-negotiation efforts in Africa, Europe and Asia.
As a musical tribute to him, the star-studded concert had performers such as Il Divo, Jason Mraz, The Script, Robyn, Marit Larsen and musical legend Diana Ross. The hosts for the night were movie stars Scarlett Johansson (wow!) and Michael Caine. A most impressive line-up and a night of great entertainment!

The picture on the left shows (from left to right) Michael Caine, Nobel laurette Martti Ahtisaari and Scarlett Johansson.
From Oslo, I flew to London for a week's break, from where I posted this entry - well, kind of ... some of the pictures were added later.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Tear for Thailand

So far I've posted at least two entries about Thailand, both of which have been quite upbeat. I really like Bangkok and Thailand in general. The place has so much culture and vibrancy, and I always look forward to my visits. I also love Thai cuisine, which is both delicious and delicate. Over the years I've made many Thai friends. However as I follow what's been happening on the political scene over the past three years, and especially over the last few months, I feel sad for the country.

Economically Thailand was once one of the fast-growing Asian Tigers. With the political and social turmoil over the past three years, its economic status has declined significantly. Former strongman Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006 and his TRT party was dissolved. Thaksin has been in exile since, first in the UK and apparently now in Dubai. Elections were held about a year after the coup, but the coalition which won was led by PPP (a party formed by many of the previous TRT members), which the Bangkok elite - led by the PAD - deemed a proxy of Thaksin. The PAD and other anti-government parties led widespread protest rallies in the capital Bangkok. Legislative means was used to topple PM Samak Sundaravej, over what seemed to be a small legal technicality - accepting fees for a cooking programme he did while as PM. Replacing him as PM was Somchai Wongsawat, a respected burreaucrat but also brother-in-law to Thaksin. He faced strong opposition and criticisms from the very first day. Thaksin did return to Bangkok once but fled just before the courts passed judgement on him in corruption allegation. But he still wields much influence and has many supporters, especially from rural Thailand.

A few months ago, the anti-government protesters (the "yellow shirts") took over Government House, where the office of the PM was located.

Last week the protesters took over the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, stranding over 300,000 foreigners in Thailand. As of this posting , the airport hasn't yet opened, and Thai society has been feeling the brunt of being isolated from other countries. Worse, the government seemed powerless to remove the protesters from the airport, because the head of the military refused to get involved, and even the police seemed ineffective.

Pro-government protesters (the "red shirts") then also started gathering in central Bangkok and there were fears that violent clash between the two camps would erupt. Then yesterday, the Constitutional Courts ruled that PPP had to be dissolved, and the PM Somchai was banned from poliics for five years, because of vote buying among its members during the elections. The anti-government protesters cheered in jubilation. The pro-government camp fumed and cried foul.

So what will happen next? Another round of elections most likely will be hastily called. Largely the same people who formed the PPP, minus the ones who are disqualified from politics, will likely create a new party, and chances are they will win again, because of the strong support from the rural population. Then we will go into yet another round of political confrontation. Some local observers say that to get out of this mess, the King should say something. But Thai royalty has usually tried to stay above partisan politics, so whether some royal direction will come is highly unpredictable.

Meanwhile the country plummets into a vicious cycle of further decline. After this airport closure fiasco, tourism will no doubt take a massive hit. Business people will also think twice about investing in a country where the political climate is so uncertain. And the local Thais will suffer.

I suppose as an outsider, it isn't possible to fully understand all the sentiments and forces at play here. But most of the political observers I speak to shake their heads in disbelief at how a peace-loving people like the Thais, led by usually rational, intelligent leaders, can let their country fall so deep, so fast. How can a dispute between two relatively small groups like PAD and PPP engulf the entire nation and bring everything to a standstill?

I also wonder whether what's been happening in Thailand could also happen in another country? What were the missing checks and balances in the case of Thailand? What lessons should other countries learn from this? Good questions to ponder over as we shed a tear for Thailand.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What I'm Reading & Watching - November 2008

It's the last day of the month so I thought I should quickly note down some of my reading & video interests for November, to keep up the tradition as it were. Well, it's a rather short list this time, since it has been a rather busy month with much travelling, projects and customer engagements. So just three new books, and three videos. I had also been continuing with some of the books I started last month but hadn't yet completed.
One book I'm reading is "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives" by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (Basic Books, 2008). Digital natives, referring to those children who were born into and raised in the digital world, are coming of age and soon our world will be reshaped in their image. Our economy, politics, culture and even societal structures will be forever transformed. The authors examine this phenomena throught a series of themes - identities, dossiers, privacy, safety, creators, pirates, quality, overload, aggressors, innovators, learners, activists and synthesis - which together provide well researched and insightful perspectives.

Another book I'm going through is titled "Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters" by Bill Tancer (Hyperion Books, 2008). This one is more about understanding people better through an analysis of their collective Internet behaviour. This includes what people search for online and when, obsession with celebrities, what we fear, and how all this can be used for more effective predictive analyses. Fascinating stuff. As author Tancer aptly says: we are what we click.

The third book I'm reading is "Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World" by Don Tapscott (McGraw-Hill, 2008). It's somewhat of a continuation of his earlier study and book "Growing Up Digital". The focus is similar to the "Born Digital"book but there are many new perspectives here as well. I particularly like the chapter dealing with how the Net Generation is changing politics and government, using Obama's campaign as example.

All three books are related in the sense that they are about the Internet and digital technology, but they are also very much about people and our behaviours.

On the video side, a couple of memorable DVDs I watched were "Rendition" with Reese Witherspoon and Omar Metwally, and "Lost in Translation" starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. But my favourite was still a not-so-new swordfighting film with dazzling action scenes, called "House of Flying Daggers" starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro & Andy Lau.

Well, that's it for the month of November. How time flies ....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Journeys I'd Like to Make

Haven't blogged for a while. Kinda tied up with work. But I've been thinking about this topic for some time. As some of you may know, my present job requires me to do quite a bit of business travel. Despite this, I admit that I still quite enjoy finding new experiences in new places. I recall a rhetorical question I was once asked - "when was the last time you did something for the first time?". Indeed I find that having this innate curiousity is what makes life interesting. I frequently toy mentally with many "projects" that I've not yet had the opportunity to carry out, and which I still aspire towards. One of these projects involves a few classic journeys that I'd like to make one day - not for professional reasons but solely for personal satisfaction.

Journey #1 - The Silk Road
This one is at the top of my list. Those who've read a previous blog entry of mine know how much I liked Colin Thurbon's book"Shadow of the Silk Road", which traced the author's trip from China to the Middle East, along one of the routes of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road is, of course, the historic interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe. The Silk Road (or "Silk Routes" as they're sometimes called) were not only conduits for silk, but for many other products (satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and even rhubarb) and were also very important paths for cultural and technological transmission by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years.

The Silk Road fascinates me. Travelling along it, I can imagine going back in time - how the grand ancient city of Chang-an (now Xian) must have looked, making our way through the rough terrain and sand storms of Gobi and Taklamankan deserts, the people, the traditions, the culture, the wonderful sights ...

Journey #2 - African Trail
My next journey is within the so-called "Dark Continent". Africa is a continent, long associated with mystique and adventure, that I've not set foot on before. I envision my journey would involve starting from Egypt. Probably I would fly directly to Aswan and take a leisurely cruise down the Nile until I reach Luxor. Then move on to Cairo. Along the way, I would visit the majestic Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.

The next part of this journey will be in southern Africa, where I would love to go on safari. Of course, not with rifles but with really good photographic equipment. The countries that are apparently good for safaris include Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. Like most safari goers, I want to catch a good look at (and get some good pictures of) the "Big Five" - the lion, elephant, rhino, cheetah and buffalo (hey, what about the giraffe?).

Finally I'd round off my African adventure with a visit to South Africa, particularly in sunny Johannesburg and Cape Town. While at Johannesburg, I would of course try to visit Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. And somewhere I would squeeze in some time to visit a couple of South African vineyards ... heh heh, cheers!

Journey #3 - The Orient Express
Ever since I saw that Agatha Christie movie "Murder on the Orient Express" many years ago, I've been hooked. For me, this is THE ultimate train ride over the past century and half. (The poster shown is from 1889)

One of the websites advertising this journey describes it well enough:

"Bombed, shot at and marooned in snow drifts, the history of the Orient Express is both legendary and colourful.The carriages which form the famous Orient Express train each have a history of their own, with long years of service criss-crossing the frontiers of Europe, operating for a variety of railway companies.The carriages have taken on characters of their own as intriguing as the characters of those who travelled within their cosy confines. "

Travelling across the continent of Europe, one is faced with immense variety and contrasting experiences. Vibrant modern cities sit alongside ancient towns with glorious pasts and tiny villages that are seemingly untouched by time. The view spans breathtaking mountains, great rivers and forest-lined lakes encircling bustling urban landscapes. Famous examples of history, culture and technology are often located close by wild, open countryside where little has changed for centuries.This is what one will see as a passenger on the Orient Express.

The route I'd probably choose would go something like this: Istanbul-Bucharest-Budapest-Venice-Prague-Paris-London . With that itinerary, I would be crossing at least eight countries, starting from Turkey, through Romania, Hungary, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and then finally crossing the Channel to end the journey in England.

Other journeys
There are a few other journeys further down on my list - like taking a cruise on a luxury liner across the Atlantic or travelling by train criss-crossing India (like what Gandhi did when he returned from South Africa, and was trying to understand his own country better .. yeah, I saw the movie too :-) But I guess these would be a bonus if I can achieve my top three.

Life itself is a journey. We have little control over how long or how short this journey will be. But we do have some control over how we make use of it. We can determine whether we are mere passengers in this vessel we call our body, or whether we've firmly taken the wheel and steered towards where we want to go. It's as an old saying goes, "it's not about the years in your life, but the life in your years" ... To my fellow travellers, bon voyage!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bangkok - Loy Krathong, Ladyboys and eLephants

Sawatdee! This week I was back in Bangkok for some meetings. I was last here about three months ago, and I remember things didn't go too well on my last day - my meetings overran and in my haste to check-out, I left my toiletries bag in the hotel room, then I was caught in a massive traffic jam enroute to the airport, resulting in my missing my flight and having to book myself on a later one. Thankfully things went much smoother this trip.

Despite small hiccups like the above, Bangkok is still a very nice place to spend time, as long as the weather is cool - as it was this time in November. The day I arrived (12th Nov) happened to coincide with the festival of Loy Krathong. This is one of the most popular festivals of Thailand celebrated annually on the Full-Moon Day of the Twelfth Lunar Month. This is a time just after the rainy season is over and there is a high water level all over the country.

"Loy" means "to float" and a "Krathong" is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves (though these days, one can get the more snazzy but less authentic looking plastic ones) .The krathong usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks, some flowers and coins.

I read that the Loy Krathong festival dates back to the time of the Sukhothai Kingdom, about 700 years ago. It marked the end of the rainy season and the main rice harvest. It is based on a Hindu tradition of thanking the Water God (or Goddess)for the waters.

Thus, by moonlight, people light the candles and joss-sticks, make a wish and gently place their krathongs on the water in canals, rivers or even small ponds. At a park near the hotel, I saw some children launch their brightly lit vessels in a canal (river?), and it was a beautiful and serene sight watching as scores of these krathongs drifted along. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away sins and bad luck, and the wishes that have been made for the new year are due to start. The festival was accompanied by firework displays (which I heard and saw in the distant sky) as well as shows and the so-called "Noppamas Queen" beauty contests (which unfortunately I didn't get to witness).

Indeed, in this time of global financial woes, it is especially apt time for such a festival, and I reckon it might even be a good idea to introduce a Global Loy Krathong to comfort the thousands of people around the world whose savings, jobs or livelihoods have been affected.

For this next section, I hasten to qualify that my interest in this subject is 100 percent academic - it is more of a social or anthropological study ;-) I'm simply keen to find out why there is such a distinct (some might even say "flourishing") transvestite sub-culture in Thailand. How did it develop and why is it more prevalent here than in other Asian countries I've visited?

Wikipedia has this to say under "Kathoey":-

The term "kathoey" is not an exact equivalent of the modern western transwoman — it suggests that the person is a type of male, unlike the term sao praphet song, which suggests a female sex identity, or phet thee sam, which suggests a third gender. The term phu-ying praphet thi sorng, roughly translated as "second type of woman", is also used to refer to kathoey. Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term "kathoey" was used in premodern times to refer to intersexuals, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males. The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity — many kathoeys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear makeup and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the western category of effeminate gay man than transgender. Kathoeys are often identified at a young age, and are considered to be "born that way". They may have access to hormones ... and medical procedures during their teenage years.

To guys reading this who have never seen any Thai ladyboys, don't be too smug thinking a macho man like yourself would never be fooled by a man cross-dressing as a woman. Believe me, through the wonders of cosmetic surgery, make-up and behaviour, some are more beautiful and lady-like than real ladies. Sometimes it is hard to tell !

The most famous Thai ladyboy is probably the former champion kickboxer Nong Tum, whose life story has been featured in many articles (eg. refer to this one in National Geographic) and movies ("Beautiful Boxer" directed by Ekachai Eukrongtham)

I admit I'm no closer to finding the answer to why the "kathoey" culture is so prevalent in Thailand? Is it in the societal DNA of the region? Is there some evolutionary implication? Is it something that has been around for centuries in different lands but just more prominent here because the Thai society is more liberal? I don't know. But what I do know that this sub-culture is bringing in many fascinated tourists to Thailand.

Interestingly, I also learnt that "The Ladyboys of Bangkok", a fun-filled and glamarous cabaret show featuring more than a dozen beautiful Thai transvestites, is one of the most popular regular features of the Edinburgh Fringe festival each year. I kid you not. Check out their website at


Without looking too hard, anyone can quite easily find many illegal activities happening on the streets of Bangkok each day - from the DVD pirates, to sellers of fake watches and handbags, to seedy-looking saunas and massage joints - but there is one activity that's a lot more animated (pun intended) than the others. I'm talking about elephants in the streets of Bangkok.

Our pachyderm friends aren't supposed to saunter down the city's streets as they do almost every day. For at least two decades the giant gray beasts have plodded through this giant gray city, stopping off at touristy areas where their handlers peddle elephant snacks of sugar cane and bananas to passers-by, especially in the evening time. Just five minutes from my hotel at Erawan, I know exactly where I should go to have a more than a fair chance of sighting an elephant on any given evening.

Elephants on the streets is of course in violation of several Bangkok Metropolitan laws. However, the police simply shrug, politicians periodically order crackdowns but it doesn't seem to have made much difference (at least as far as I can tell). Animal lovers despair, especially since there have been a number of road accidents involving elephants, with a recent one ending in the tragic death of an elephant and a child.

The creation of a Stray Elephant Task Force in 2006 didn't keep the elephants off the city streets. Nor did the team of undercover elephant enforcers (the E-Team?) who periodically cruise through Bangkok on motorcycles scouting for the beasts.

My view is that enforcement should be stepped up, and elephants ought to be kept off the streets. Elephants are after all a symbol of Thailand, and should be cared for in special sanctuaries. However, I do admit that being able to see, pet or feed an elephant within Bangkok somehow does add to the charm of the city. So perhaps a middle-ground could be determined, with special areas (free of vehicular traffic) being set up to allow tourists some interaction with these majestic beasts.
Bangkok is a most interesting city. Its people are hospitable, and its cultures and traditions enchanting. Despite the political problems Thailand is currently going through, a casual visitor to Bangkok would never know anything was amiss (unless you try to go to Government House, where the protestors are still staking out). My best wishes to all my Thai friends. I hope everything works out well politically and economically.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Intriguing Indonesia

This week I was in Jakarta, capital city of Indonesia, for three days. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt in the centre of the city. It's a very nice hotel with an adjoining shopping mall called Plaza Indonesia.

From the lobby lounge cafe as well as from my room, there's a great view of the huge roundabout that's sort of a landmark of the city. You know, I spent some time just watching scores of vehicles making their rounds and I couldn't figure why the road leading into the roundabout (on the right of the picture) was always so much more congested than the other parts of the roundabout.

It's an intriguing time for Indonesia. Several significant events have been capturing the attention of the people, and even arousing passions in some circles ...

(a) Akan Datang : The Indonesian Presidential Elections

The Indonesian Presidential Elections will take place in May 2009, but many activities have already started in the build-up to the campaigning. Many individuals are making known their political aspirations - the usual political stalwarts like current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, current Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, former presidents Megawati Sukarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid (who obviously want to go another round), former DPR speaker Akbar Tandjung, and newcomers like the Sultan of Yogyakarta.

I noticed party banners and buntings being strung up in various corners of the city. Not really very prominent yet, but it's still early days, and things will no doubt heat up in the coming months.

On the banners and posters, the faces of SBY and Megawati are easy enough to recognise. But I'm sure there'll also be young, new candidates who take inspiration from the Obama victory and like Obama, they will offer themselves as representatives of CHANGE, and hoping to displace some of the more prominent names on the election trail.

And speaking of Obama, Indonesians are pretty pleased with his victory, especially as he spent some time as a child living and studying in Jakarta. An "Indonesian son" is now Leader of the Free World. Imagine that !

(b) The passing of the Pornography Law

The Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) passed this law recently. It was a very controversial piece of legislation. Some parties, especially the more religious-leaning ones, pushed hard for the law to be enacted. But many others were afraid that it was not well contemplated, pushed through too hastily and could be misused. The law's definition of pornography was also questioned because of the inclusion of the words "to arouse sexual desire", the meaning of which was considered too ambiguous.

Indeed, hundreds of people demonstrated in Yogyakarta, Solo and especially in the streets of Bali. The Province of Bali (being a popular destination for Western tourists) has officially rejected the law, putting the Central Government in a dilemma - if it accepts their rejection, it will be accused of giving the province special treatment. Conversely, enforcing the law would lead Bali to oppose it even more.

Even though the Bill has become Law, many feel that several articles in the Law are still problematic. I have a feeling this isn't the end of the Pornography Law story. The saga is likely to continue for some time to come.

(c) The execution of the Bali Bombers

It was the end of the road for the three Bali Bombing convicts (Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Mukhlas). They had been sentenced to death five years ago after being found guilty of involvement in the October 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people in the touristy Kuta area. The fatalities included 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 British, 7 Americans and others. The three convicts were imprisioned on the island of Nusakambangan. After many legal challenges and appeals, they were finally executed by firing squad in the early hours of Sunday 9th November.
Now the government is a little on edge with security stepped up at sensitive sites, just in case there's some militant backlash. Let's hope the concern proves unfounded.
Yes, the Republic of Indonesia is an intriguing country. In spite of its huge population, sprawling geography and obvious socio-economic challenges, most observers agree that over the past two years, things have been moving. Not always smoothly, but moving all the same. It's a little like that huge roundabout in central Jakarta. Once in a while, there's a bit of congestion. But overall the progress is undeniable ...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Snapshots of Seoul

I had my first real visit to Seoul, capital of South Korea, this week. In the past, I've had a number of interactions with Korean public sector officials and academics before, but never had a chance to explore the city of Seoul. Not that I had much time on this business trip, but at least I went to a couple of interesting places and saw quite a number of sites on the way from/to Incheon airport.

The economic history of South Korea is remarkable. Like the proverbial "phoenix rising from the ashes" of the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean wars (1950-1953) - which brought widespread turmoil and destruction in the land - the country grew into an economic powerhouse by the late 80's. In the early years it was led by a series of autocratic leaders. When I was a teenager in school, my image of South Korea was always one of military rule with frequent civilian riots or protests. Between the 1960's-80's, South Korea industrialized very rapidly, adopting an outward-looking strategy. Today looking back, it is astounding to realise how the country achieved regional and global leadership in so many industries - shipbuilding, steel, machinery, automotive, consumer electronics, semiconductors, petrochemicals, information & communications technologies (ICT) and the latest exports of Korean music and television drama series (the so called current "Korean Wave") !
I stayed at the COEX Intercontinental, a very comfortable hotel in an area called Gangnam in Seoul. Next to the hotel was COEX, a huge convention centre from which the hotel derives part of its name. My company had its offices literally two buildings away. Within walking distance were a few shopping malls and tourist attractions (temples, parks and even the famed global headquarters of Taekwondo, the popular Korean martial arts).

From my hotel room window, I looked out to one side of Seoul city - which wasn't really the wall of gleaming skyscrapers I had expected but reflected more a sprawling metropolis with low to mid-rise buildings. Seoul reminded me of an early-day Tokyo in some ways, and perhaps that's not coincidental since Korea was under Japanese rule for 35 years.

After a day and half of meetings, I did find time to go out for dinner with colleagues and friends, and on my last day even made my way across the Hangang river to the main shopping areas.
I visited Itaewon, a popular shopping street recommended by the hotel conceirge, and spent some time walking around there. Picked up the few ubiquitious souvenirs and trinkets to bring home. Ha, ubiquitious - now that's a word that Koreans seem to like a lot! It's all about ubiquitious government (u-gov), ubiquitious computing, ubiquitious city (u-city), ubiquitious Korea (u-Korea), etc ...

I also went to a street market area called Dongdaemun, with makeshift stalls selling all kinds of consumer products and Korean foods. However it appeared rather disorderly in the way the stalls were laid out - possibly because of a massive construction that was happening in the adjacent block. Many stalls were also not open. I suspect the place would look better in the evening with more stalls open, more lights to add to mood, and more visitors. I walked around for a while but didn't see anything I fancied.

After a while of wandering around , I found the architecture of the historic Great East Gate, from which the area gets its name, more interesting than the wares sold in the stalls along the street. (Note that "dong" in Korean means east, similar sounding to "tung" in Chinese, and "mun" is akin to"men" in Chinese, meaning door or gate). This east gate of the fortress wall of Seoul was first built in 1397 (and rebuilt after falling into disrepair in 1869). It still looks very majestic, although a little out of place in its modern surroundings.

Well, this Seoul experience was certainly very interesting. I admit I was never much of a Korean fan (not having quite taken to their music or TV drama series), but I was pleasantly impressed by the city, the food and (despite hearing stories about the gruffness of some of the people) I found everyone I met very friendly and hospitable. Certainly I look forward to more exploration on any future visits. Annyeonghaseyo!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What I'm Reading, Watching & Listening - Oct 2008

I've decided that in this multimedia world, it's self-limiting to talk merely about books, so I'm extending the title of this occasional blog entry to include videos I've watched and audios I've listened to. As usual, I've managed to build up a rich list, which probably means I've got little chance of completing all of them within this month, but I am making enjoyable progress and the ones I don't finish will be within easy reach of my desk or bedside table for the next few weeks anyway.

These are the four books that I'm currently reading ...

"Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet" - by Ian McNeely & Lisa Wolverton. This is a new and insightful book which reminds and reintroduces us to the key institutions that have shaped and channeled knowledge in the West through the ages. These institutions are the Library, the Monastery, the University, the "Republic of Letters", the Disciplines and the Laboratory. The first three on the list are likely to be familiar, or at least self-explanatory. The "Republic of Letters" (roughly 1500-1800) can be defined as an international community of learning stitched together initially by handwritten letters in the mail and later by printed books and journals. The Disciplines (1700-1900) refers to the specialisation of intellectual labour (into disciplines) after the Enlightenment produced the West's first mass market for knowledge. Finally the Laboratory (1770-1970) is about the physically enclosed domain of objective fact, as well as the extension of its methods to ever wider spaces, which enlarged the realms of scientific experts.

Korean phrase book - Ahh, out of sheer necessity (I'm going to Seoul for work next week), I'm dipping into this one to pick up some common words and phrases. Ann yeong haseiyo (which means good morning/afternoon/evening), Kamsa hameda (thank you) .... etc etc. I must admit I'm quite curious about Korea, especially how it has been successful exporting its culture (think about Korean TV drama series, taekwondo, music, Korean food etc), and I'm sure I'll find much to write about from this upcoming trip there.

"West End Chronicles: 300 Years of Glamour and Excess in the Heart of London" - by Ed Glinet. I've always had a soft spot for London, having spent a good eight years there for education and work in the late 70's and early 80's. Now, my own daughter is there studying Performance Arts at a leading drama college of the University of London. So I've spent a fair share of time in the West End of London. This book - part history, part tour-guide, part collection of rare factoids - is very interesting as it traces the origins of some of the sites I'm so familiar with - Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Soho, Chinatown, Picadilly Circus - and I learn things I never knew before about the early roles or functions of these places.

"Shadow of the Silk Road" - by Colin Thurbon. Leaving the best for last, this one is a gem for anyone remotely interested in history or travelling or China. It's about the Silk Road, the famous series of trading routes that have been used over the early centuries and links China and Europe. It served not only as a conduit for exchange of products (eg. silk, foods, materials) but also innovation and information (eg. paper, gunpowder, the stirrup) . One could even say this was the original Information Superhighway! Thurbon writes brilliantly, and I swear that in my mind's eye I can visualise myself walking through the streets of Xian (formerly the great city of "Chang An", literally "Eternal Peace"), riding a camel through dust storms westwards into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and into the plains of Iran and Turkey. This book makes me want to make the real journey ("Journeys I Want to Make" is going to be the topic of a soon upcoming blog entry) ! This book has to be one of my best reads this year.

Some good movies and documentaries I've watched this month ...

"Mongol" is a movie made in the Mongolian language, though one can also view it in Thai. English subtitles, of course. It is the story of Temudjin, the Mongol child who grew up to become Genghiz Khan. There are few actors we can recognise in this movie, which makes it more genuine, to me at least. This movie was apparently Oscar-nominated.

"The Mummy III: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" - starring Brandon Fraser, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh - featured action from beginning to end, with great special effects and digital graphics, as well as nice humour.. This is a great example of "movie as escape" as the audience is taken on this fast-paced classic adventure of good versus evil.

"The Forbidden City" - from the History Channel - was about the design and construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I enjoy watching documentaries about Chinese history, and this one was pretty well made.

And finally, I'm almost through listening to an audiobook, which is very relevant given the current political happenings in the US - "Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama. I especially liked the fact that it was read by the author himself. It is important to get a sense of the man who could possibly become the 44th President of the United States. The book was first published in 1995, so it is insightful to listen to the man who, it is probably fair to say, doesn't yet realise that a dozen years later, he would be going for the highest post in the US, and therefore is more likely to express his views with candour.

On Putrajaya and the MSC

I visit Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, quite regularly as part of my job. I was there again only last week for various meetings. As my professional and business focus is on public sector initiatives (ie. initiatives by government ministries and agencies), one place that I visit pretty often is Putrajaya, the 5,000 hectare federal administrative capital located south of Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Putrajaya, and its "sister city" Cyberjaya were created within the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) since 1996. The mega-project was a brainchild of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir. When one looks at the gleaming buildings, mosques, roads, bridges and other infrastructure there, one can't help but be awed by the amount of investment and effort that must have gone into designing and developing this place. It is even more impressive to note that as late as 1997, much of this area was covered by acres of oil palm plantations.

I remember when I first went in search of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya in 1996, shortly after they were officially launched. When I hopped into a taxi in Kuala Lumpur, and told the driver I wanted to go to Cyberjaya, he looked at me totally without comprehension as he had never heard of the place before. When I finally directed him towards the area, we drove around in circles looking for the MSC Headquarters - which turned out to be a series of low-rise buildings (called Cyberview, if I'm not mistaken) that resembled more a resort rather than an office.

Although it is surrounded by the state of Selangor, Putrajaya is a federal territory, just like KL and Labuan. It is now the Federal Government Administrative Centre, with most of the ministries having been relocated here. The government has also built many residential apartments here (with attractive discounts to entice civil servants to relocate there), and schools, shops, sports facilities, gardens and so on, are all sprouting up in the area. An express train now links the area with KL International Airport (KLIA) as well as KL City Centre.

Many people who have been to KL may not have visited Putrajaya, so I'd just like to point out some interesting sites there - the Prime Minister's office at Perdana Putra, the Putra Mosque, the man-made Putrajaya Lake, Istana Darul Ehsan (one of the residences of the Sultan of Selangor), the ultra-modern Seri Wawasan Bridge, and the grand avenue with all the key federal ministry buildings.

Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, and indeed the whole MSC project has had its share of critics too. They say the project was too opulent, unecessary and cost too much taxpayers' money. They point to the fact that despite the beautiful architecture, the place remains relatively "lifeless" - little or no buzz.

On my part, I tend to think that Putrajaya is a beautiful project - easily one of the grandest government campuses in the world. I believe there are definite benefits in physically putting the ministries closer together, and this relocation out of KL has certainly helped alleviate traffic in the city (although more still needs to be done). It will take more time to create the buzz that the critics refer to, but it will surely come. When I bring officials from other governments to Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and the MSC in general, they never leave unimpressed.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wine for Asia 2008

Yesterday I was invited by my friend Tommy, a sommelier and owner of popular restaurant Cafe de Amigo in Singapore, to visit the "Wine for Asia 2008" exhibition and show at Suntec City in Singapore. There were over 150 companies represented there, coming from Europe, South America, Asia and the US. The exhibition was nicely laid out in neat booths along five or six lanes in a huge hall on Level 6. Many company representatives manned the booths, with bottles of wines of all varieties (varietals?) available for the sampling. It was naturally a very enjoyable experience, and I tried no fewer than a dozen glasses (only a small quantity in each, of course :-)

As with most shows and exhibitions, I ended up with a small stack of marketing collateral - brochures, pamphlets, flyers, namecards and so on. As I look through them, I found that the blends I tasted had come from countries & areas such as: Austria (Wien), France (Bordeoux), Italy (Palermo, Cecina, Sicily), Spain (Sabadell) and Argentina (Mendoza). I normally like red wines - like Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots - but at this exhibition, I tasted some really smooth whites as well.

I had a look at some global wine consumption statistics from the Wine Institute. I'll share two sets of figures - per capita consumption and then total volume consumed.

First the per capita consumption figures available go up to 2005 (a little dated, but these kinds of figures don't fluctuate much from year to year, so I reckon they're still pretty accurate). The country with highest per capita wine consumption (in litres) is the Vatican City at 62 litres/person - I'm imagining a lot of tipsy cardinals and priests staggering around St Peter's Square ;-) Andora comes in second at 60 litres/person. France is third at 56. Looking further down the list, some interesting ones are Italy at 49, Spain at 35, Argentina at 29 and the UK at 19. The USA is surprisingly low at 9 litres/person. From Asia, the top country is actually Singapore at 2 litres/person, followed closely by Japan and Hong Kong, both just below 2. China is at 0.9, Taiwan 0.8 and Malaysia at 0.3.

And second, the total volume of wine consumed figures, which reflect a somewhat different picture. The top ten countries are: France (34 million hectolitres), Italy (28 m), USA (26 m), Germany (20 m), Spain (14 m), China (12 m), Argentina (11.5 m), UK (11.5 m), Russia (8.5 m) and Romania (6 m). Singapore does a mere 95,000 hectolitres.

Now that I've dazzled you with figures, don't expect any more deep insights or commentary today. I'm still recovering from yesterday's glorious consumption. But reading through the exhibition directory, I regret a little that there are so many booths and blends I missed - perhaps I should go back again for more exploration on the last day of "Wine for Asia 2008" today :-)

Cheers everybody !

Friday, October 10, 2008

Vietnam - Part 3 (Danang)

I'm now in Danang, the third largest city in Vietnam. With a population of over a million people, Danang is located somewhat midway between the capital Hanoi in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It's a coastal city located on the mouth of the Han river, and has beautiful beaches, relatively wide and well-planned roads, great seafood and a laid-back lifestyle (at least that's how it seems to an occasional visitor like me). This is my fourth visit to Danang.

A historical snippet is probably useful here. Danang was called Tourane during the period of French colonisation. That's why one can still see a lot of establishments still using that name - like Hotel Tourane, Sky Bar de Tourane, Tourane Spa, etc. But of course, Danang's dubious claim to fame came during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as most Vietnamese usually refer to it) when it was the landing point for the first major American troops sent to fight here. They landed on Red Beach near Danang in March 1965 (see picture). Danang quickly became a major American base. Well, we all know what happened in that war. Eventually all US troops were withdrawn, and the area was turned over to South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops by end 1972. After the final offensive, Danang fell without bloodshed to the North Vietnamese Army in March 1975, only a few days after the 10th anniversary of the initial US troops landing.

But looking at Danang today, one would never have a clue to that part of its history. I like Danang very much and have visited several times over the past three years for conferences and meetings. Usually I stay at the Royal Hotel Danang which is conveniently located (but rather spartan interior-wise), but this time I was in a much newer Green Plaza Hotel, which is just by the river. From the 19th floor that I am located, I have a great view of the river as well of the ocean somewhat further away.

Here's what the hotel looks like from across the street. Green Plaza is a 4-star hotel according to the travel brochures and websites. It's pretty good from what I've seen so far. There's a number of restaurants and cafes, a pool, a billairds room, a spa, a rooftop lounge,a disco (which I heard last night, but haven't actually seen) and a small row of shops.

Here are some of the nice views from my window and balcony.

Unfortunately it has been a little drizzly for the past two afternoons, so the skyline tends to be hazy.

There are a few sites that tourists like to visit in or around Danang City. These include Marble Mountain (one of five mountains south of Danang that stretch from the coast inland, and which have lots of caves and tunnels - see picture below), the Danang beaches and Hoi An (a UNESCO designated World Heritage site and example of a well-preserved South-East Asian trading port of the 15th-19th centuries, where the buildings are are blend of local and foreign architectures). Danang has great aspirations to become a regional tourism hub, and everywhere one can see new developments - offices, residences and many, many hotels (along the same stretch as the famous Furama Beach Resort, I saw at least five new hotel developments, including the Hyatt and Crown Prince).

I'd also like to mention the unique round, basket boats that fishermen in Danang use. Very quaint and cute looking vessel. Here's me with some of these boats.

Well, this entry is beginning to sound like a page from a Lonely Planet guide, so let me change focus a bit and talk about something else - like the people. I've found the residents of Danang generally very friendly. This place is not as culturally sophisticated as Hanoi, but at the same time it is not commercially adultrated like Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). There is still a small town "innocence" about it. In many ways it reminds me of the Malaysian town where I grew up - Kuching in the state of Sarawak. Danang, like Kuching, is the small town/city that is perceived as the backward cousin of its more progressive kins, the leading cities (Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, HCMC). But I think Kuchingites and Danangites (don't know if that's the usual moniker for residents of Danang :) know that the real secret is to develop gradually but maintain the more relaxed habits that make for a higher quality of life. In other words, stay away from the rat race as long as we possibly can because, as an old bumper sticker I read said "Even when you win in the rat race, you're still a rat" ...