Friday, 10 December 2010

I'm Glad India didn't Boycott the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony

So China persuaded a bunch of countries to boycott the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.

And what a bunch of countries they are!

  • Afghanistan
  • Algeria
  • China
  • Colombia
  • Cuba
  • Egypt
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Kazakhstan
  • Morocco
  • Pakistan
  • the Philippines
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sudan
  • Tunisia
  • Venezuela
  • Vietnam
(There are 19 countries in this list but the news reports say 16 countries boycotted the ceremony, so I don't know which of these actually attended. Certainly Serbia changed its mind under EU pressure and decided to attend after all. I hope the Philippines and Sri Lanka attended. They shouldn't belong to this bunch.)

I wouldn't want to live in any one of these countries. They've selected themselves well.

I'm glad India dissociated itself from this bunch and decided to attend. Lord Meghnad Desai feels the same!

[Perhaps India wants to send China a message that its sensibilities aren't to be trifled with. China issues "stapled visas" to Indians from the state of Jammu & Kashmir, while it issues regular visas to Indians from other states. It denied a visa to an army general because his area of command included Jammu & Kashmir. These are pretty pointed statements that it doesn't recognise Indian sovereignty over Kashmir. And it insists that the state of Arunachal Pradesh is actually South Tibet and thus belongs to China.

Well, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. When the very legitimacy of the Tibet annexation is in question, how can "South Tibet" be part of China? I think the world should start to question the Tibet annexation, and also threaten to recognise Taiwan as an independent nation.]

China needs to be asked hard questions, and other countries should have the spine to stand up to its bullying. I'm glad India showed some spine, for a change.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

India Takes the Moral High Ground

At last India has done the right thing and raised the amount of flood aid offered to Pakistan from the embarrassingly low figure of $5 million to a somewhat more respectable $25 million.

This could have been a wonderful opportunity for "disaster diplomacy", but Pakistan blew it by not accepting the aid directly and instead asking for it to be routed through the UN.

Obviously Pakistan's leaders have never heard the saying that a gift blesses both giver and receiver. They have turned away the potential blessing of a new era of peace and prosperity.

India has taken the moral high ground by accepting Pakistan's terms, since the objective is to help the people struck hardest by the floods, whether or not India is allowed to get the credit for it. Pakistan has not covered itself in glory by being so churlish about accepting India's help.

Reading between the lines then, I have to assume that aman door ast (Peace is far away).

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Australian Election 2010, and What It Means

I must say I expected something like this. In fact, a hung parliament with Labor slightly ahead of the Liberals reflects my feelings exactly. It's nice to know the entire country feels the way I do :-).

I daresay we wouldn't be in this situation if we had Peter Costello leading the Liberals. It would have been a slam dunk. Instead, we have the aptly named religious nut Tony Abbott in charge. Call me what you will but I refuse to vote for a politician whose policy manual is religious scripture (and it doesn't matter what religion we're talking about). Abbott has been considered unelectable for a reason, and that is now clear in these results.

At the same time, there's tremendous anger against Labor, and Julia Gillard by extension, for what was done to Kevin Rudd. They were punished for their backstabbery by the loss of 17 seats. I hope the back room boys like Mark Arbib and Bill Shorten are pulled back into the same back room and given a wedgie. (I can't be sure, of course, that other voters have had qualms about Labor for the same reasons. There are some troglodytes even in an advanced Western democracy who oppose Gillard's leadership because of her gender, those who believe that an unmarried person without children cannot understand the problems of Australian families, and the religious right who oppose her for being an atheist and/or for "living in sin".) Still, I like to believe the Rudd factor was the most important.

At the time of Kevin Rudd's victory in 2007, the swing in Labor's favour was so great that psephologists called it a "two-election swing", which meant that the next election was Labor's to lose. And true enough, they lost it. I guess they could still crawl back into government by bribing two independents, but then it'd be official: Julia Gillard as Australia's first female lame-duck Prime Minister.

[See this hilarious Taiwanese spoof on the Australian election.]

Australia now follows the UK into the new era of hung parliaments and coalition governments. India moved into this era in 1989. 1984 was the last time the Indian electorate delivered an outright majority to a single political party. European democracies have seen coalition governments for decades. I think messy as they are, coalition governments more truly represent the views of a diverse society. They're complex and unwieldy, but ultimately fairer.

The Americans seem to have sidestepped the need for coalition governments by splitting the power of the State three ways - into an independently elected executive (the President), independently elected legislative bodies (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and a judiciary that although subject to appointments by the administration of the day, acts like a capacitor in an electrical circuit by slowly absorbing and discharging right- and left-wing constituents over the course of many administrations. Westminster-style democracies like Australia, the UK and India, in contrast, have the executive and legislative arms joined at the hip. The government is formed by the majority party in parliament. Hence the only way for the State to reflect the diversity of its polity is to elect a hung parliament with no single party gaining an outright majority. Coalition governments are then inevitable.

From a historical context, I think the world is therefore progressing. There is greater accommodation of diversity, and our democratic institutions are changing to reflect this.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Pakistan Must Not Refuse Flood Aid From India

Now this is the flip side of my earlier post.

Apparently, the Pakistani government is still “considering” the Indian aid offer of $5 million.

Wow, that seems to be a really hard problem! What should they do??? Can someone help them make up their minds?

It's sort of like the USSR refusing US aid under the Marshall Plan after World War II. Ideology is far more important than human life and suffering, it would seem.

According to this article, India’s initial offer of just $5 million is to test the waters. If Pakistan responds favourably, India will donate more. That makes sense given Pakistan’s contemptuous treatment of Indian aid during the 2005 earthquake (allegedly letting food rot at the border, ripping off the Made in India tags before distributing aid, etc.) Even now, they seem to want Indian aid to be routed through the UN rather than be made available directly.

All I can say is, this is a really callous leadership that doesn’t have the best interests of their people at heart.

From the article,

“Sources said the [Indian] government has already begun preliminary work on an assistance package with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA - awful website, by the way) which is resource-rich, and would even be willing to route the assistance through the UN if that’s what Pakistan wants.

But it feels the bilateral approach is better because given the short distances, India would be able to reach assistance much faster to the affected areas in Pakistan. In fact, India is even willing to be the source country for assistance material for other countries, multilateral organizations helping out Pakistan, even NGOs.

[...]

During the civil war in Sri Lanka, India had sent across family-packs that contained everything for a family for a specific time period. In Afghanistan, India supplies fortified biscuits which could be a good source of nutrition for children in Pakistan right now.”

Will Pakistan allow India to fly supplies directly to where it is needed, or will it prefer to let its own people die rather than grant air access to the “enemy”? Courage is not just the ability to face enemy troops in battle. It takes courage to once again venture help to someone who has never been gracious in the past, and it also takes courage to trust someone who is offering to help you.

India has passed the test of courage. Let’s see if Pakistan does.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

What Pakistani Schoolgirls Can Teach The Rest of Us


video

This is a very touching video (also available with better resolution on YouTube) that starts on a misleading note but has a twist halfway through. I'd encourage everyone to watch it till the end. The part where the young girl says "Hum maafi chaahte hain" (We ask for forgiveness) is particularly touching.

Little snippets like this are what lead me to believe that when Official India and Official Pakistan finally sign a peace agreement, the artificially built-up animosity of over six decades will disappear in an instant, like a bubble.

On a side note, it was amusing to see the stacks of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew books on the shelves. Pakistan and India are more alike than we imagine...

Kashmir and the Indian Conscience

Here’s a brutally frank write-up on Kashmir in the UK’s Guardian that should give liberal, educated Indians pause. The author is not a Kashmiri Muslim. Nor is he a biased Pakistani or ignorant Westerner, as our convenient stereotypes go. From his name (Pankaj Mishra), he is Hindu and of Indian origin.

I suffer great moral pangs on the issue of Kashmir, and articles like this only reinforce them. My only quibble with this otherwise powerful article is its complete silence on the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus (the Pundits). The author should have followed his own advice and dealt with that additional “messy reality concealed by stirring abstractions”, as he put it. But that omission should not cause us to sweep the larger issue under the carpet.

Indians have a certain healthy wariness towards men in uniform (the police more than the army, which is generally invisible in daily life). How many Indians would enter a police station with a jaunty step? One of the luxuries of being part of the middle or upper classes is the relative ability to lead one's life without ever coming into contact with the police. But there is no escaping the constant stream of stories (in the Indian press, not the "biased" Western media) of “death in police custody” and “encounter killings”. There is probably more than a grain of truth to what is being said about the behaviour of India's men in uniform in Kashmir. False notions of patriotism should not prevent Indians from speaking up about it. We are humans first and our national identity comes second. Indians shouldn’t go on the defensive and refuse to look seriously at the issue just because Pakistan raises the Kashmir issue for its own opportunistic reasons.

It would be good if Indians themselves could bring pressure on the Indian government to dramatically improve the situation in Kashmir. Even if we believe that a plebiscite or independence for part of the region (the Kashmir Valley) is a bridge too far, we can at least insist on greater press access and more honest reporting on Kashmir. That may shame the authorities into providing a lighter touch and better administration.

It’s the least we can do.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

India Must Not Withhold Flood Help To Pakistan

It would be very sad if politics came in the way of humanitarian feeling. The floods in Pakistan have not only taken a toll of lives and displaced millions of people, but have also wiped out agricultural crops, threatening the country with a massive food shortage.

Boston.com has some stunning pictures that capture some of the enormity of the damage. BBC has reported on it as well, and this map is from there:


In some ways, this is a golden opportunity for India and Pakistan to mend fences. The cycle of mutual suspicion and hate needs to be decisively broken, and a massive Indian aid effort in the current crisis could go a long way.

It shouldn't be purely government-to-government aid. The Indian government should mobilise contributions from the public and NGOs, so that ordinary people on the Indian side can be seen to be helping their counterparts across the border. That is the only thing that can change mindsets.

India's protestations that it has no evil designs on Pakistan continue to be ignored by Pakistani policymakers in the military, because (rightly from their point of view), they focus on capability rather than intent. A massive popular groundswell of aid may help them see that India has both the capability and the intent to do enormous good.

It's time to set petty quarrels aside and do the statesmanlike thing. Future generations will thank us.

Update 14/08/2010:

India finally broke its silence and offered $5 million in aid to Pakistan. The report comes from a Pakistani news site. The most heartening aspect is the positive response from Pakistani readers (at least the first 7 that have appeared so far).

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Good On You, Dr. Haneef!

I'm glad to read that Dr. Haneef, the Indian doctor wrongly accused of terrorism by the Howard government in 2007, is suing former Immigration minister Kevin Andrews for defamation.


I have written about Kevin Andrews before and even earlier. I think his action in cancelling Dr. Haneef's visa and having him arrested (after he had been granted bail by a judge) was mean-spirited and unjustified.


Now at last, it looks like he's being called to account.

You go, Dr. Haneef! All the best to you.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Australia's Pink Revolution

It seems that only the sudden elevation of Julia Gillard as Australia's first female Prime Minister has caught the world's eye, but a quiet revolution has been underway for a while.

The pictures here speak louder than words.

Australia's Head of State - Governor-General Quentin Bryce

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Environment Minister Penny Wong

Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition Julie Bishop

New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir

New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh

And that's just the political sphere. There are scores of women in the federal and state parliaments, including some ministers. This is just the set of those who have risen to a position of unquestioned eminence.

Business has been less progressive, but here too, the bastions have begun to fall.

Gail Kelly, CEO of Australia's largest bank (Westpac)

A quiet social revolution has been taking place in Australia, and while the country can obviously lay legitimate claim to the label of an equal-opportunity society (don't let the focus on gender distract you from the ethnicity of Marie Bashir and Penny Wong above), a recent article titled The Invisible Men uncovers a new and possibly disturbing side to modern Australian gender relations.

Watch this space. This is no decadent society. This is social ferment at its best.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Julia's Caesar

Et tu, Julia? Then fall, Kevin.

It must have been the most unkindest cut of all to have one's hitherto loyal deputy turn so savagely against them.

Today's coup had all the hallmarks of that classic Shakespearean tragedy.

The out-of-touch autocrat, the shadowy conspirators, the honourable front-person recruited to the cause, the treacherous assassination, and so on right down to the "Not that I loved Kevin less" speech.

[...] It’s these beliefs that have been my compass during the three and half years of the most loyal service I could offer to my colleague, Kevin Rudd. I asked my colleagues to make a leadership change. A change because I believed that a good Government was losing its way. [...] I love this country and I was not going to sit idly by and watch an incoming Opposition cut education, cut health and smash rights at work.

She may as well have said her former boss was "as dear to me as are the ruddy drops that visit my sad heart" (Act II, Scene I). One has to appreciate the genius of the bard...

And in the other unremarked tragedy (for Australia at least), Lindsay Tanner, perhaps the most competent minister in the Rudd cabinet, has resigned. Of course it was all for "family reasons", but it seems a bit of a coincidence that Tanner (along with Anthony Albanese - Marc Anthony?) was one of the very few people to support Rudd in the face of the backstabbery hatched by these fine public figures.

I voted for the Labor party in 2007 believing that Kevin Rudd would be PM for the full term of the government. Now some people I don't know have replaced him with someone else for reasons I don't understand, and I haven't been consulted. This voter is angry (and is not alone by the looks of it). If it had been Peter Costello heading the Liberals instead of that clown Abbott, I would have switched loyalties in a heartbeat. [Who knows, it could now very well be the turn of the Liberals' backroom boys to develop cold feet and do a Caesar on Abbot.]

I used to like Julia Gillard and wanted her to be PM someday. Now I'm not so sure. It's hard to like someone who's holding a bloodstained knife.

Even if they are honourable.


Sunday, 20 June 2010

Recipe for Mushroom-Baked Beans Curry


Mushroom-Baked Beans Curry

Whenever the opportunity to commandeer the kitchen presents itself, I put together as many ingredients that are exclusive to my taste as possible, so I can turn out fewer unpopular dishes, if that makes sense. For example, I'm alone in my household when it comes to liking mushrooms and baked beans, so it wasn't going to be long before a combo of this sort made its appearance.

Ingredients:

1 tin of mushrooms in "butter sauce" (Butter sauce? Some kind of maize starch, as it turns out)
1 tin of baked beans in tomato sauce
1 spanish onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 chilli (Jalapeno peppers are my favourite)
2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
1 pinch of turmeric powder

Procedure:
(Procedure, heh! The procedure is so simple as to be almost mindless.) Chop the chilli and garlic into fine pieces. Chop the onion into slightly larger pieces. Sauté the chilli and garlic first, then add the onion. Add a pinch of turmeric powder to bring out a rich colour.

Add the baked beans and stir well. When that's well mixed, add the mushrooms and stir well.

This is a dish that can't make up its mind whether to be sweet or salty, so you'll have to make its mind up for it. Add salt or ketchup as per your fancy. I chose salt because that was my mood for the day.

Serves one :-/

Friday, 4 June 2010

As If The Big Four Were Not Enough

It almost makes me laugh in the midst of my rage.

Here I am, arguing that Australia needs a Ten Pillar Policy to bring back competition to the banking sector, and here are banking officials lobbying politicians to accept further mergers. And there are ministers who were "open to the idea". I want to know who these representatives of the people are so we can vote them out.

The arguments take my breath away.

One of the themes pushed was that a merged ANZ and NAB would promise to slash fees and charges across the board.

Yes, I totally reject the lessons of economics and therefore trust the big banks to cut fees and charges as they gain more negotiating power. Like they did during the financial crisis. (Another link here.)

The move, it was argued, would prompt CBA and Westpac to follow suit and deliver customers a major benefit.


A major benefit! Yes, why not have all four banks merge into one massive monopoly that can deliver a major benefit to customers right on their backside? They will be forever grateful.

I guess we dodged a bullet here, but we're all to blame for creating a tolerant climate where such ideas can be entertained. Corporates and politicians must learn that consumers are voters, and that they jealously guard their interests. But I don't see much hope that we can force a Ten Pillar Policy on the government with the citizenry sleeping so soundly.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Mining Companies Fight Dirty Over Tax Proposal

If you want to know what a mining industry "fat cat" looks like, look no further.


That's Clive Palmer, director and owner of Mineralogy Pty Ltd. and worth a few billion.

Like most mining industry fat cats, Palmer is naturally unhappy with the Australian government's proposed new resources tax. The industry has hit out with a series of ads purporting to show that the new tax will hurt Australia by scaring away foreign investment. And now that the government is striking back with ads of its own, Palmer has attacked the "wasteful use of taxpayer's money".

Hang on a minute! Isn't the mining industry wasting shareholders' money by running its ads? Oh, but that's to shore up shareholders' profits, which will surely be hit if the companies sit by and do nothing.

Why can't the same rule apply to the government, then? The government is merely running ads to shore up its future tax revenue, which will surely be hit if it does nothing to counter the industry's lobbying.

The industry lobby's scare campaign says Australia will lose out on investment with this tax, because investors will take their dollars to more favourable tax regimes. But with reports that other countries are planning to emulate Australia's example, where will those investment dollars go? Still scared? Ooga-booga!

I'm with the government on this one. I own shares in resources companies, but I'm not about to be fooled by the industry's arguments. We need to build back the budget surplus and the resources boom is the best vehicle to do that. The government missed the chance to make some money off the last resources boom. They shouldn't let the next one slip. These companies pay less tax in Australia than in other countries. More importantly, they pay tax at a lower rate than I do. Let them pull their weight, say I. They're not about to go anywhere else. After a bit of bluster, they'll stay on and pay the tax.

I've contributed to GetUp!'s campaign to counter the industry's spin, and I'll be letting the government and my MP know where I stand. Nobody holds a gun to my head. Certainly not a fat cat.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Saving Economics from the Economists

I just read a column by a purported economist that makes me see red. In case the link isn't publicly available, the comment that Robert Gottliebsen makes in the context of the ACCC's decision to block NAB's takeover of AXA is this:
But when the share analysts start to think more deeply about the issues raised by the ACCC decision to block NAB's offer while giving the green-light to AMP's alternative offer, it becomes clear that, over a wide area, mergers in Australia are now going to be much more difficult. What we are seeing is a dramatic widening of competition policy and shareholders' interests can sometimes be cast aside (italics mine). The best illustration is telecommunications where [ACCC Chairman] Graeme Samuel and the government are reshaping the industry and shareholders in Telstra are the sacrificial pawns.

I can't believe it - Gottliebsen seems to be saying that what's good for consumers (i.e., competition) is bad for shareholders!

On the contrary, Mr. Gottliebsen, you should surely know that the lack of competition benefits neither consumers nor shareholders. Oligopolistic markets are known to be wasteful, paying shareholders less than their due and charging consumers more than their share.

When the US Justice Department broke up AT&T in the early eighties, shareholders actually saw the value of their shares go *up* after a few years, thanks to the improved efficiency forced on the company's parts.

These are not just idle comments by one without skin in the game.

I'm both a customer and a shareholder of Westpac's and I believe the ACCC's lack of teeth with regard to the St George takeover has impacted me adversely on both counts. The spread they gain through their increased oligopolistic position is simply frittered away on inefficiency and waste. Where, indeed, is the impetus to improve when the landscape today is far less competitive than just a couple of years ago?

I'm both a customer and a shareholder of Telstra's and I applaud the government's surprisingly tough stance against it. It couldn't happen to a nicer monopoly!

I'm both a customer and a shareholder of NAB's. I'm happy about the ACCC decision to block NAB's takeover of AXA but I believe the same ban must also extend to AMP. We need more competition in every market, not less. It's not just consumer protection but shareholder protection as well. It shouldn't take an economics degree to see this.

I think Australia's status as one of the most diffused shareholder bases in the world has created a class of shareholder-consumers afraid to revolt at higher prices because they falsely perceive a benefit from that as shareholders. That fallacy owes much to the demagoguery of economists like Gottliebsen who, for reasons known only to themselves, continue to peddle the myth that the interests of consumers and shareholders are somehow opposed. The only real opponent is oligopoly and its resultant waste. Both consumers and shareholders stand to gain when waste is eliminated, and competition is the only way to achieve that. Surely a free-market economist should be able to see that.

To paraphrase Raghuram Rajan, it seems we need to save Economics from the Economists.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour Observed (2010)

Just like the last two years, we observed Earth Hour again.

This time, it was particularly easy. We were going out to a friend's house for dinner, so we just made sure we turned off all the lights before leaving :-).

At our host's place, we finished dinner before 2030, then turned out the lights and had an hour-long conversation by candelight.