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.