Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vietnam: Colour, Culture & Community (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my Vietnam entry on 25 July 2008. As I write this, I'm back in Hanoi for two days. It's been pretty warm here, with the temperature display showing 31 degrees C in the afternoons.

The Vietnamese Identity

During my flight from Singapore to Hanoi, I sat next to a young Vietnamese man with a very cute little girl. We got to chatting and I found out that they had come from Auckland, New Zealand where most of his family had migrated to. The young man introduced himself as Mark Le, and he had been in NZ for seven years, and was working as a painter in the construction industry. The little girl was his six-year old niece Wen, who had been born in NZ and he was taking her for a two month vacation to Vietnam, so she could meet her grandmother who lived in Haiphong. Mark said he tried to go back to Vietnam once every few years - "whenever I have enough money" - but this was little Wen's first trip to Vietnam. She held a NZ passport, and Mark was telling me how he would have to pay US$25 to get her a visitor's visa when they arrived at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi.

This was not the first time it has struck me how attached Vietnamese are to their homeland. Even though the individual might have migrated, or in some cases escaped the country (as in the "boat people" episode, if you recall their history), many Vietnamese (at least all the ones I've met) still maintain a strong bond with it. If possible, they want to visit frequently, even if they might not go back to stay for good. Wherever they bring their children up, they will try to instill a strong sense of identity in them - through speaking Vietnamese to them (Mark Le told me that little Wen could speak both English and Vietnamese, "but her Vietnamese very bad" he said, sounding a little disappointed) and teaching them about the customs and traditions from their country of origin.

"Viet khieu" is the term for the overseas Vietnamese. There are more than five million of them around the globe. They remit huge sums of money to their relatives or business partners back in Vietnam. In recent years, the Vietnamese government is trying to encourage them to return to their homeland. The government wishes to leverage on their wealth of knowledge, experience and financial resources, and also hope that returnees will choose to stay longer and participate in nation-building.

Crossing the Road in Vietnam - An Experience

Anyone who has been to a major city in Vietnam would have tales to tell about crossing the streets. If you observe how the traffic flows within the city area, it can be pretty alarming. The majority of vehicles are still motorcycles, but the number of cars and vans is growing quickly. The very first time I came to Hanoi, some five years ago, I stood at the curb for fifteen minutes, not daring to cross. Let's put it this way - traffic lights, zebra crossings and one-way street signs are mere suggestions rather than official rules. And at their cross junctions, where two more more streets intersect, many do not have any traffic lights at all - now that's scary!

I've included some recent photos taken in the streets of Hanoi. Some good advice from my Vietnamese friends on how to get to the other side without any mishap: (1) Don't wait for a break in the traffic. Just go. (2) Walk slowly and steadily. (3) Look to the side of oncoming traffic (but also glance at the opposite side - you never know who might be driving the wrong direction). Of course in two-way streets, look carefully to both sides (4) Adjust your walking pace according to the oncoming vehicles (5) Don't run, go backwards or make any jerky movements.

Well, I've followed these instructions and am still alive after many trips to Vietnam. Basically, if your movement is predictable, the oncoming vehicles will either slow down or weave around you. A Singaporean colleague of mine who lives in Vietnam used to say that in his analysis, the only implicit traffic rule that everyone tries to follow is: "don't kill anybody". Beside that, anything goes.

I've often thought that the Vietnamese way of street-crossing reflects something fundamental about the Vietnamese psyche or way of thinking. Firstly, there is a high level of tolerance for each other. It's a kind of "live and let live" attitude for fellow travelers in life. Secondly, people don't pay too much heed to rules in general. They simply do what they think works. Thirdly, there is no grand plan (or if there is, it's not obvious) - they know where they want to go, head in that direction & when they meet obstacles, simply adjust as they go along

Hmmm, this entry is getting longer than I thought. Looks like my comments on HCMC and Danang will have to wait till Part 3 on another day.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Malaysia A to Z

Two months ago, I was in a planning meeting with my colleagues in our company's office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. About half of the executives in the room were non-Malaysians, and so we decided we needed a quick and fun way to give them an introduction to Malaysia, before we proceeded with the planning discussions. So I pulled together a light introductory presentation, using a simple A to Z format, to convey various informational snippets about the country, such as the social, political and economic conditions. This blog entry is adapted from that presentation. Enjoy ...

A is for the Agong, the Malaysian King. The Malaysian system of government has been called a “federal constitutional elective monarchy”. The position of Agong (more fully the "Yang di-Pertuan Agong") is rotated among 9 hereditary Sultans of the Malay states, each for a five-year term. (the other 4 states, which have titular Governors, do not participate in the selection). The role of the Agong is largely ceremonial.

A is also for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He is the fifth PM of Malaysia. He was very popular when he started in 2003 and won a very large majority in the 2004 General Elections, but the government's performance did not meet the people's expectations and he is under political pressure after a poor showing in the 2008 General Elections.

A is for Anwar Ibrahim, the high-profile leader of the opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat). He was a former Deputy PM, but was arrested and jailed by the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir on charges of corruption and sodomy. Now released, he has managed to unify the different opposition parties, and continues to pose a challenge to the government.

B is for Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling political coalition in Malaysia. The majority of its seats are held by its 3 largest race-based parties UMNO (United Malays National Organization), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress). Other component parties include Gerakan and parties from Sarawak and Sabah. BN has ruled Malaysia since independence.

B is for bloggers, which is an active and fast-growing community in Malaysia. Blogs have had significant effect on garnering political support, especially for opposition parties. Some of the popular blogs include, and Malaysia Today. PM Abdullah has publicly admitted that his administration under-estimated the power of this new media in the lead-up to GE2008.

C is for Cyberjaya, a planned township and science park that is at the heart of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), a brainchild of former PM Dr Mahathir. Officially opened in 1997, it is located some 50km south of Kuala Lumpur. Many companies, such as Shell, HSBC and DHL, have set up operations there.

D is for Democracy and durian, both equally thorny subjects.

Democracy: Malaysia has a system of government based on a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. However, since independence, the Malaysian government has been dominated by one coalition group, the Barisan Nasional (BN) ..... and some people have questioned whether this is real democracy. With the GE2008 results and huge advances made by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR), Malaysia seems to have come closest to a two-party system: BN vs PR.

Durian, the so-called "King of the Fruits". Some say "It tastes like heaven, but smells like hell". Enough said. Care to try?

E is for Elections, which happen at two levels - national and state. Malaysia has had 12 (national) General Elections since independence in 1957. The Constitution requires that an election be held at least once every five years. The results of the previous two elections were telling. In GE2004, BN won 90% of the votes. In GE2008, they got barely 60%, and they also lost 5 states to the opposition parties.

E is also for the Economy. Malaysia's GDP (PPP) is about USD 360 billion. Per capita GDP (PPP) is about USD 14,000 . The GDP is contributed by industry (48%), services (43%) and agriculture (8%). Key exports include electronics & electrical machinery, chemical products, palm oil and wood products. GDP growth averages 6%. .

F is for Food. Malaysia is literally a food paradise. The cuisine comes from India, China, Thailand, Indonesia and other neighbouring lands, and blends with foods of Malays and indigenous people. Examples include: satay, laksa, nasi goreng, roti canai, prata, teh tarik ...
G is for the Government, which is structured as follows:
Legislative - Dewan Negara (Senate), Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) & Majlis Raja Raja (Council of Rulers)
Executive - King, Prime Minister & Cabinet
Judicial - Supreme Court, High Court & Lower Courts

H is for HINDRAF or the Hindu Rights Action Force, which is a coalition of Hindu NGO’s committed to the preservation of Hindu community rights and heritage in a multiracial Malaysia. The group has led agitations against what they saw as an "unofficial policy of temple demolition" and concerns about the steady encroachment of sharia-based law. In late 2007, several prominent members of the HINDRAF were arrested, some on charges of sedition; following a huge rally. The charges were dismissed by the courts. Five people have since been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act

H is for red hibiscus or "bunga raya", the national flower of Malaysia.

I is for Independence or "Merdeka" (in Malay). The Federation of Malaya was recognised as an independent nation in 1957. In 1963, it was joined by Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo (now called Sabah) to form Malaysia. Singapore subsequently left Malaysia in 1965, leaving thirteen states.

I is also for the Internal Security Act (I.S.A.) legislation, inherited from the British after independence, allows for the arrest of any person without the need for trial in certain defined circumstances. Due to the alleged draconian nature of the ISA, various human rights organisations and opposition political parties have strongly criticized the act and called for its repeal.

J is for Jacyln Victor, the first Malaysian Idol winner in the competition held in 2004. She won a recording contract from record label BMG.

J is also for the world-famous Jimmy Choo, who was born in Penang and now runs his women's shoes and handbag empire from London. His creations are worn by royalty and media stars.

K for Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the investment holding arm of the government of Malaysia, which is empowered as the Government's strategic investor in new industries and markets. Its main objective is to promote economic growth and make strategic investments which would contribute toward nation-building, Khazanah is also tasked to nurture the development of selected strategic industries in Malaysia. Khazanah has invested in over 50 major companies, both local and abroad.

K is also for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), one of Asia's major aviation hubs. KLIA is situated some 50km south of Kuala Lumpur.

L is for Lat, Malaysia's most famous and popular cartoonist. Nobody else catches the idosyncracies, quirks and ironies of Malaysian life like Lat does. He is truly a Malaysian institution. No one is spared from the Prime Minister right down to the minibus driver with a death wish ! Lat's real name is Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid.

M is for Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. He held the post for 22 years from from 1981 to 2003. He was credited for engineering Malaysia's rapid modernization and promoting non-individualistic "Asian values". During his administration, he was considered as one of Asia's most influential leaders. Mahathir is also known as an outspoken critic of certain Western practices. Over the past two years, he has been openly critical of PM Abdullah’s leadership, and recently resigned from UMNO.

M is also for a certain Mongolian model, whose murder is at the centre of a political web of intrigue.

N is for Najib Razak, the current Deputy Prime Minister, and Defence Minister. Public choice of Abdullah as successor when the latter steps down, supposedly in 2010. Najib is also the son of Malaysia's second PM, Tun Abdul Razak.

N is for the New Economic Policy (NEP), a controversial socio-economic restructuring affirmative action program launched by the Malaysian government in 1971. The NEP ended in 1990 and was succeeded by the National Development Policy in 1991. Although the NEP was hailed in some quarters as having reduced the socio-economic disparity between the Chinese minority and Malay majority, others accused it of having reduced non-Malays to the status of second-class citizens by cementing Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy). Also NEP tends to benefit only the middle an upper class Malays, with poorer Malays sidelined.

O is for the Organisations that make Malaysia buzz - such as Petronas, Air Asia, Maybank, MISC, Telekom Malaysia, Tenaga Nasional, Genting, Hong Leong, Sime Darby, etc.

P for Putrajaya, a planned city located just south of Kuala Lumpur and sited within the MSC, is the federal administrative centre of Malaysia. Most federal ministries and government offices have relocated there to gain relief from the overcrowding and congestion of KL. However, KL still serves as Malaysia's national and legislative capital for now. Putrajaya is a Federal Territory.

Q for the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam. Malaysia is a multi-religious country and Islam is the official religion.

R for Rakyat which means “Citizens” or “People”. Malaysia has a multi-racial population of about 25 million. The main races are Malays & indigenous people (65%), Chinese (25%), and Indians (8%).

R is for the Rukunegara, the official state ideology which encourages "respect for a pluralistic, multireligious and multicultural society“. The pledge contains the words:

S for the States of Malaysia - all 13 of them (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu), with 3 federal territories (Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya).
T is for the Twin Towers a.k.a. the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. This structure was the world's tallest building, before being surpassed by the Taipei 101. The Twin Towers has 88 floors. Tower 1 was built by Hazama Corporation of Japan, while Tower 2 was built by the South Korean multinational Samsung Engineering & Construction.

U is for UMNO or the United Malay National Organisation, a right-wing party and Malaysia's largest political party. UMNO is a founding member of the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled the country since independence.

V is for Vision 2020 or Wawasan 2020 is a Malaysian ideal introduced by former PM Mahathir Mohamad in 1991. The vision calls for a self-sufficient, industrial, developed nation, complete with an economy in 2020 that will be eightfold stronger than the economy of the early 1990s.

W is for World-class. For example, Malaysian badminton players have always been successful internationally, and most recently Malaysia won the All England men's double championship in 2007. The pair of Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong achieved this feat.

X is for the mark one puts on the ballot paper during the General Elections.

Y is for Yeoh, Michelle Yeoh that is. This Ipoh-born actress is a BAFTA nominated Chinese Malaysian movie actress, well known for performing her own stunts in the action films that brought her to fame in the early 1990s. Yeoh is currently based in Hong Kong. She is best known for her roles in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and the multiple Academy Award-winning Chinese action film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She also played a role in Memoirs of a Geisha

Z is for Economic Zones or Corridors or Regions. Three special zones have been launched by PM Abdullah: the Iskandar Development Region (IDR), Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) and Eastern Corridor Economic Region (ECER).

Well folks, as the ditty goes: Welcome to Malaysia, Truly Asia !

Friday, July 25, 2008

Vietnam: Colour, Culture & Community (Part 1)

My very first visit to Vietnam was in 2003 when I was invited to speak at eGovernment seminars in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I didn't know it then, but this visit kickstarted a series of workshops and conferences I would find myself participating in over the next five years. In my current job*, I support various ASEAN countries, and as such I make fairly regular trips to Vietnam - mostly to Hanoi, occasionally to HCMC, and a couple of times to Danang.

It is probably true to say that Vietnam has become one of my firm favourite countries. I feel strangely comfortable there. The people are friendly, the local food agrees with me (it is usually vegetable or seafood based, which makes it healthy and tasty), there are many historical or culturally significant sites, and the place is relatively safe.

Despite its rapid economic growth over the past 7-8 years, Vietnam is still a developing country. I have lived most of they past 30 years in concrete jungles we call modern cities, mostly in supposedly developed economies, so I tend to find the pace of life in Vietnam a couple of notches lower than what I'm used to - which is absolutely great because it allows me more time for three important R's: reflection, relationship-building and relaxation.

I would like to share what I like about the three cities of Hanoi, HCMC and Danang. I will only cover Hanoi in today's blog, and continue with the other two cities in Part 2 another day.

The national capital HANOI, located in the north, tends to be more conservative, more official-like, with more protocol. It also feels more cultural (I might be wrong here, but to a visitor like me, there seems to be more cultural or historical sites to visit in Hanoi than in HCMC). Here's the Opera House, which is very close to the hotel I normally stay at.

To illustrate the pervasiveness of the local culture, consider for instance the Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is located right in the centre of the city, and there's a fascinating legend associated with it. According to a tale that dates back to the 15th century, King Le Loi, also known as Le Thai To, the founder of the Le Dynasty, found a holy turtle during a cruise on the then Luc Thuy, or green lake. The turtle told the King to return the sacred sword that had helped him defeat the northern Ming aggressors now that peace had been restored to the land. Le Thai To unsheathed his sword and threw it to the turtle, which caught the sword in its mouth and dived into the depths of the lake. The King later renamed the lake "Hoan Kiem" which means "Lake of Returned Sword". This is a story passed from generation to generation.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi is another fascinating place, that I love to wander around when the weather is cool. I am told that the Old Quarter retains a bit of the ambience of ancient Hanoi. The Old Quarter consists of a network of 36 streets, which bear the names of the goods that were originally manufactured by the craftsmen living on that street in days gone by, eg. Silk Street, Paper Street, Bamboo Street, etc. The Old Quarter is a great place to buy souvenirs or gifts. I also like to hang around the cafes of the Old Quarter just to watch the community that lives, works and plays there (ahem, this sounds like a company slogan I'm rather familiar with!).

A unique & very colourful cultural experience in Vietnam is watching water puppetry. One can do this at the Thang Long theatre, at the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. Backed by musical instruments such bamboo flutes, bronze drums, gongs, xylophones and other instruments I can't even name. The program includes ducks, snakes, dragons, buffalos and little people dancing and diving above and under the water surface. The themes played out reflect daily life of villagers such as farming, children playing, romance , as well as depictions of ancient legends.

Other places in Hanoi worth visiting are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, Museum of Fine Art, and the West lake area.

Well, that's it for today's posting. As mentioned earlier, I'll continue to share my thoughts on Vietnam in subsequent blogs. Do give me any feedback you have or share your own experience travelling in Vietnam.

* Some of you may know that I'm with the Asia Public Sector team at Cisco Systems, the global communications & collaboration company.

Note: All the photographs included in this blog were taken by Jemima Yong (

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What I'm Reading (continued)

In response to a visitor comment, here's a picture showing the various book covers ...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What I'm Reading - July 2008

I love books, I read extensively and I have a pretty sizeable library. I've had an affinity for books and reading as far back as I can remember.

When I was in Primary school, I used to go through whole series of storybooks from various authors I liked - authors like Enid Blyton, Hugh Lofting, Capt. W.E. Johns, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean and the like. In secondary school, my attention turned to Arthur Hailey, Jack Higgins, Sidney Sheldon, Ian Fleming and Harold Robbins. Later still it was John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, Robert Fulghum ... I don't know exactly when the turning point came, but at some stage shortly after I started working, I began to read less fiction and more non-fiction.

These days, it's more books on business, government, management, history, technology, self-improvement and biographies. An occasional fiction title does creep in, but not that frequently.

My habit is to read a number of books concurrently - five or six is not uncommon, although I have a bad habit of jumping to new titles before I complete a previous one. Usually (but not always) I do come back to complete the first title. A quick scan at the stack of books beside my bed reveals the following titles:

* Mao : A Life - by Philip Short
* The Real History of World War II - by Alan Axelrod
* Memo to the President Elect - by Madeleine Albright
* South East Asian Affairs 2008 - ISEAS publication
* The Extreme Future - by James Canton
* Emily of Emerald Hill - play by Stella Kon
I also recently bought the 15th Anniversary Edition of one of my all-time favourite books "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum.

Finally I think I'll make this a regular blog entry - maybe once a month, I'll include a "What I'm Reading" entry so as to track how my reading habits change (if at all). I'll be interested if nobody else is ;-)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On the Singapore Flyer

Last Saturday evening, my family and I went for a ride on the "Singapore Flyer", a huge observation wheel and Singapore's latest attraction. We had tickets for the 6pm "flight" (yes, that's how they referred to it on the website), my grand plan being that we might catch the sights at twilight, with lots of nice photo ops of both day and night. Unfortunately we were a bit too early and also it drizzled a bit at the time. So much for my plan ...

The Singapore Flyer structure measures 165m high (the wheel diameter itself is 150m), which is about 42 storeys high and is currently the tallest in the world - 5m taller than The Star of Nanchang and 30m taller than the London Eye. From my reckoning, it will hold this honour for 18 months at most, as a couple of contenders are currently being constructed - in Beijing, Berlin and Las Vegas.

The view from our capsule (one of the 28) as it approached the top was pretty impressive, although I believe in two years' time it will probably be even better when the Integrated Resort-cum-Casino at the Marina is finally complete. The panorama included the Marina Bay, central padang, parliament house, financial district, the Esplanade entertainment hub, exhibition complex, hotel area, all the way to the Indonesian islands on the horizon.

The timing of our Flyer ride was quite fortunate, because we got to witness part of the National Day Parade rehearsals happening down below on the floating platform on Marina Bay. Thousands of people on the grandstand were taking in the sights of marching troops, jets flying past, parachutists, helicopters bearing a huge national flag, human formations spelling out words, cannon salutes ... All in all, it was an elaborate celebration of Singapore's 43 years of nation-building.

As I watched all this from our capsule, it struck me that there were a number of ways in which the operation of the Singapore Flyer reflected that of Singapore the nation:

(1) Visitors to the Flyer experience an extremely well-organised and efficient process within a sparklingly clean environment - very much like the overall administrative structure of Singapore.

(2) One boards a capsule at the bottom of the structure, and rides it to the top, getting an increasingly better view as the capsule moves higher. This reminded me of what has been increasingly referred to as the "Singapore Dream" - that with sufficient hard work and perseverence, any Singapore resident can enhance his or her living standards and rise to the top, regardless of initial station in life.

(3) The view from the top allows one to perceive objects located far away. Such far-sightedness is analogous to the long-term planning and preparation that the Singapore government has a reputation for, enabling them to prepare for possible challenges way in advance.

(4) The cycles of the wheel are reminiscent of the cycles of life - be it in nature, the economy, equity markets, fashions and fads, etc - and which the Singapore population needs the resilience to go through from year to year.

(5) The Flyer is constructed such that the wheel rotates in one plane. I believe engineers refer to this as having only one "degree of freedom". This can be seen to be somewhat limiting. Perhaps a future design might enable the capsules to move more freely, and not just in a circular path. This might represent a limitation in national focus, something that needs to be expanded over time.

Perhaps I'm going too far with this metaphor. Perhaps I should see the Singapore Flyer simply for what it is - a fun ride and a nice family outing.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Interesting times

It is said that "May you live in interesting times" is the English translation of an ancient Chinese curse. However the source of this curse is still debated by various scholars. Frederic Coudert, a trustee of Columbia University, referred in 1939 to a letter from Austen Chamberlain, half-brother of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who introduced him to this phrase. Chamberlain apparently learnt about the curse from a Chinese diplomat. Another Chinese proverb has also been cited as the possible original line from which this "curse" was derived: It is better to be a dog in peaceful times than a man in a chaotic period.

While the origins or even existence of such a curse is in doubt, what is not is that "interesting times" is an apt description for the two score and something years of my life. Having lived mainly in Asia (with an educational stint in the UK) and working most of my career as a consultant of one sort or another - even when the job titles didn't always reflect it - I have had the opportunity to observe organisational ups and downs, political and financial crises, pandemics, wars, scientific breakthroughs, globalisation, fads and fashions .. you name it.

This is the very first posting of my blog, which I've entitled "Asian Observer". Hopefully there will be many and frequent entries in the months and years ahead on this theme. I plan to write from two perspectives - firstly, observations on Asian affairs, and secondly sharing my views, as an Asian, of broader world events. There'll certainly be no shortage of topics to write about.

I hardly think that "living in interesting times" is a curse. To me, it's a blessing and reason for living. I hope you'll join me and give me your feedback.