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Archive for May, 2000

The Jeepney Experience

Unlike Kuala Lumpur’s traveller-friendly, architecturally beautiful and comfortably modern international airport, Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok Airport is a glass and chrome high-tech disaster. This futuristic eyesore will be very convenient for space travel 20-30 years from now. The remote airport check-in facilities at both Hong Kong and Kowloon are excellent, possibly the best one has seen, but even high-tech facilities need comfort as a prerequisite for passengers and it would be nice to have, among other things washrooms, not only in the proximity of the platform but on the train itself because of the 20-25 minute high speed ride to the airport on Lantau Island. The train, with a TV screen for every seat, is an Orwellian dream (or a nightmare without a washroom), the environment is squeaky clean. Both at the remote check-in facilities and the airport, modernity does not condone signposting. From the check-in desk to the train, we twice lost our way within the station, when we got to the airport and despite the rather ambiguous map on the back of the boarding card it took us 45 minutes of walking around in circles before making it to the Cathay Pacific Business Lounge, no help from airport or airline staff who looked as confused as us or probably acted that way, that being the accepted Hong Kong attitude. One was happy to note a PIA vis-a-vis CAA similarity in relationship, when asked why prominently placed signs did not indicate the way, the Cathay Pacific representatives lamented that the airport authorities would not allow it. Who says petty bureaucracy departed with the British in 1997? Except for honourable exceptions Hong Kong residents are generally ruder than ever before. In the “competitiveness” potential, they have rightly slipped from 1st to 6th place in the world. With mega-cities like Singapore and Tokyo, with Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai and a lot of other developed cities coming into line rapidly, Hong Kong will find it hard to stay the course ten years hence unless HK residents get over their severe attitude problem. In any case Shanghai is the future commercial capital of Asia as it once was, the new enclave of Pudong is a high-tech marvel, but comfortably so.


The Bill O’Reillys of the World

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is reported to have signed up with a number of assets-tracing firms for recovery of the billions that have been looted from Pakistan. Since NAB officials have been going to London and New York, the safe bet is that most of the agreements, believed to be on percentage basis without a contingency or mobilization fee for expenses, have been signed up with western firms. This is indeed very welcome news and though one has reservations about the credibility and integrity of some elements associated with NAB, one must congratulate them on this initiative. No doubt some well-known foreign firms have a tremendous capability to uncover assets, however NAB must be careful and blacklist those firms who dragged their feet for reasons unknown when they were previously employed by Pakistan. The recovery itself will be a long, legal process that takes some doing because the accounts and assets are mostly never directly in the name of the person who stole the money but in a myriad number of off-shore firms, names of close relatives, etc. The financial structure is done with the aim of avoiding discovery. One owner of US$ 500 million plus in assets abroad claims ingenuously that these are all his wife’s business and since she is British, she is not accountable to Pakistan. One may well ask, what fortune did his wife inherit and/or what business was she engaged in to successfully acquire all this wealth abroad?

Due credit must be given to NAB for nabbing one of this country’s virtually untouchables, the owner of a huge business empire that specializes in the sophisticated evasion of taxes, custom and excise duties. Protected by a combination of bureaucrats on their payroll (including some from the investigating agencies) as well as brilliant lawyers who sell their conscience for a fat fee (and should themselves be investigated for evading taxes, since their honoraria is received in cash and mostly in foreign exchange), these characters have acquired such power and influence that they have actually managed to have a beach within the precincts of the city reclaimed using the cover of creating of a public park, probably the first in the world and without a murmur of protest from any environmentalist. Another major tax-evader who was being pursued by a previous CBR Chairman is flourishing on the basis of his “connections” in the present arrangement. Coincidentally, these characters jointly own a major western franchise, a convenient arrangement not only to launder black money but also to make their reputations kosher. One generation later nobody will remember how they made their fortunes. And a government minister who knows (or should know) has the effrontery to call these people as young “dynamic entrepreneurs”. The fact that at least one of the groups has been hauled up by NAB, despite their professed “connections”: speaks well of the integrity of the accountability process, no doubt the days for the others are also numbered, subject to the influence they wield, of course.


Challenges, opportunities

The stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the way to the Asia Society’s 11th Annual Corporate Conference in Shanghai was exhilarating. Malaysia is both an occasion for euphoria and depression, sheer pride in this Muslim and Asian country having achieved so much in so little a time, a numbing depression following the realisation that we have been left so far behind as a nation. Contrary to what is propagated in the western media about widespread demonstrations in the streets due to Anwar Ebrahim’s incarceration, there was not even a hint of protest. Even his die-hard supporters admit that protests are very much confined to a small area in midtown Kuala Lumpur by a very small number of people and that too on days that the former Mahathir ally makes a court appearance. Perceptions mostly being influenced by what the western media dishes out to us, the absence of anarchy that is supposed to have engulfed Malaysia was a surprise. Anwar Ebrahim is not even a topic of conversation. The ruling party elected to go to the polls in the face of dire predictions by the western media, even though it lost some ground it only proved that the elections were transparent and that democracy must remain the ultimate arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. Literacy level does play a huge part in achieving political maturity and Malaysia has invested billions in education. Having written an article entitled “Mahathir the Magnificent” sometime back, it is a matter of the greatest satisfaction to note that there is nothing to suggest any subtraction from that well deserved epithet. Transforming a diverse and divisive multi-racial society into one great melting pot of economic and social emancipation deserves far more!


Whose honeymoon is over?

There are widely diverging views on whether time has run out for the military regime or the clock is still ticking, mostly this assessment is derived from one’s perception of whether this government has brought any change into the lives of the nation’s citizens. For the vast mass of the populace, there is no perceptible change, the reforms are still in the proposal stage and change as a result is still very much in the future. The untouchable elite have mostly felt the edge of the military’s sword, being held accountable for the inordinate wealth they have managed to accumulate through blatantly illegal means there is a change they would rather do without. Their vested interest lies in creating a perception of growing frustration among the masses, the “affected” are simply trying to stoke the population into the streets for their own sakes. On the other hand there are those who honestly believe it is in the supreme national interest to correct the deep malaise in the country but professional requirements, particularly in the face of a possible Indian-inspired “limited war” this summer, demand that the military be freed to attend to their primary mission of defending the country’s borders. One believes the Indians will keep the borders alive so as to keep up the pressure, the adventure threat is a hoax to perpetuate that feeling. However we cannot take Advani and Co lightly.