Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Kishore Mabubani in Singapore

Superpowers, Prophets, and Religion

Travel causes even the least observant to re-learn history. I began reading Ehsan Masood's Science and Islam (2009) last week, and I highly recommend the book. 
From what I gather so far, a world with two primary superpowers is not new. Masood mentions the Greek-Persian rivalry several times. (From my museum visits, I know the hatred between these two empires was so fierce, the Greeks engraved faces of defeated/dead Persians on their mead mugs.) 

Less predictable is the path of a new superpower. As America and the Soviet Union continued a costly rivalry from 1945-1991 and then from 2000 until 2016, China took advantage of their inattention, becoming a new superpower in just twenty years (1995-2015). No country can maintain supremacy if it expends energy and wealth fighting multiple fronts over an extended time period, a lesson every empire seems to forget. 

The Persian Sassanids and the Byzantine (Orthodox) Christians were similarly occupied with each other, allowing the untrained Arab Umayyad tribes and Bedouins to eclipse both empires within thirty years. Interestingly, such victories against outsiders occurred after Muhammad's (PBUH) death. For all the talk of the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) strategic prowess, his military career--as opposed to his economic and philosophical one--lasted only ten years, towards the end of his life, from 622 to 632, and after his first wife's death. (The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in 570 A.D.) 

A diversion: Muhammad (PBUH) initially fled to Medina to escape assassination attempts but the polytheistic elites, his brethren in Mecca, continued to pursue him. Only after he moved from Mecca, his birthplace, to Medina in 622--when he was approximately 50 years old--did he authorize violence under the express limitation of self-defense: 

Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. (Qu'ran, 22:39) 

Furthermore, Muhammad (PBUH) testified he was visited by the angel Gabriel/Jibril in 610 A.D.--at the age of 40--meaning he opposed elites and their excesses before receiving divine revelations, even though he belonged to the influential Qurayshi tribe. Like most changemakers, he was a rebel early on, disgusted by materialism (see Jesus's actions, overturning tables of moneychangers at temple) and made friends with outsiders, including but not limited to African slaves. (By the way, though Abu Bakr, Muhammad's successor, was said to have light skin, we don't know if "light skin" referred to light brown or some other color.) 

Thus, for most of his life, Muhammad (PBUH) gained influence through two sources: first and foremost, his older wife, an affluent, established merchant who trusted the younger Muhammad in part because he disdained materialism; and secondly, the poor, especially slaves, whom he freed, co-opted, and elevated into positions of authority (see story of Bilal). ["Many of those who fought for Islam in the early years were among the poorest in the region." (Masood, pp. 24)] Regarding the second source, Muhammad's (PBUH) openness to outsiders surely arose because he was orphaned at a young age. 

As for other historical topics, Masood doesn't cover the Sunni-Shia split in depth, but I'll try to summarize here: some Shia scholars argue Muhammad (PBUH) united the numerous tribes and peoples of Arabia, only to have his work destroyed after his death in a military coup defying his succession wishes as set forth in his Ghadir Khumm speech. The Sunnis, for their part, see no conflict because Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's chosen successor, was eventually made into a Caliph and was too young to command a leadership position at the time of Muhammad's (PBUH) death. (Ali was eventually murdered in 661 in present-day Iraq.) 

If they want to pursue the matter further, the Shias might argue Umar/Omar--the same person who pledged allegiance to Ali at Ghadir Khumm--attacked Muhammad's (PBUH) daughter, Fatima, causing both a miscarriage and death less than two months after Muhammad's (PBUH) death. (Muhammad once said, "Fatima is a part of me. Whoever makes her angry, makes me angry.") The Sunnis may counter by saying succession is rarely a smooth process--all three Caliphs after Muhammad (PBUH) were assassinated, not just Ali ibn Abi Talib. Furthermore, while Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad's (PBUH) grandson, was murdered under the Sunni Ummayads, their ancestors did not specifically target the Shias--after all, the Ummayads lost to the Abbasids, direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad, who were also Sunni. 

As I was reading Masood's book, I realized another pattern in power replacement: the presence of a single unexpected defeat leading to the collapse of a long-standing empire. We've all heard of Napoleon's Waterloo and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union (starting in June 1941, with the winter in November 1941 destroying Germany's morale), but what about the battle of Yarmuk in Jordan in 636, where about 35,000 Arab Muslims defeated a Byzantine force of 100,000? Or the Battle of Badr in 624, where Muhammad's army of 313 men defeated almost 1,000 Arabs from Mecca? 
I'm reminded of Ernest Hemingway's quote about bankruptcy/collapse coming gradually then suddenly, a sentiment that seems to apply perfectly to empires in decline after an unexpected military defeat. 

Another pattern discussed in Masood's book is the speed by which a center of commerce or influence can shift. The Ummayads moved the center of operations from Mecca to Damascus, and Baghdad's intellectuals also seem to have moved to Damascus. Similarly, Constantinople became an important city after the Byzantines moved the center of Christianity away from Rome. 

Yet, all empires drove away distinguished minorities even as they attracted intellectuals and new residents. For example, the Byzantines excluded Nestorians, who were Christians, but who had a different interpretation of Christ's role. Masood describes the Byzantines as fundamentalists who insisted on "a single interpretation of the nature of Christ," displacing minorities and non-conformist Christians as far away as China. 
It got me thinking: for most of human history, groups of minorities were rarely able to tell their stories in documents that survived intact, so we lack full knowledge about declining social cohesion and the numerous escalations that led to expulsions. Such gaps make it almost impossible to study patterns in historical displacement and render history books woefully incomplete. Consequently, when studying history, remember: you are learning a sliver of a sliver of a moment in time. Be humble. 

A Bet on India vs. Japan: Arigato

I made a bet today with an Indian-American investor at the LKY School of Public Policy in Singapore. He is bullish on India and South Korea, whereas I am bullish on Japan. Incredibly, one of his arguments favoring India was citing Pakistan's bankruptcy (on a balance of payments metric) after the U.S. significantly decreased financial aid--as if being next to an allegedly unstable government with nuclear know-how is somehow advantageous. (The idea of being a local hegemon without competition is overrated in sane circles. The goal should be aiming to be much better than your neighbors and trading partners, but not vastly so, lest you cause unpredictable dislocations.) 

Below is the email I sent to memorialize the conversation: 

Ten years from now, January 16, 2029, let’s chat, preferably in person over chai. 

You believe India will be both happier and economically stronger than Japan. I disagree. Japan has no enemies today other than its own past and its own resistance to controlled immigration. 

Meanwhile, India has the Kashmir issue; fluid borders; a nearby Pakistan with nuclear weapons (deployable with covert assistance from Russia); multiple languages; unfortunate racial demarcations because of the Hindu caste system's historical impact; and an economy where agriculture takes the lion’s share of employment. 

Ten years is not enough time to overcome such hurdles. Had you said 2050, I’d consider you competent. As it stands, “head up one’s arse” seems more apt. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Jerran Young: Passing the Ball all the Way to the NBA?

There are two kinds of passers in basketball: the flashy "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, Earvin "Magic" Johnson variety, and the true PG type: John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, and Deron Williams. Unsurprisingly, true PGs rack up more assists over time. 

When I travel, I try to attend minor league sports games because it's a fun, inexpensive way to get to know a country. Basketball in particular is growing steadily in popularity, and American-born players, usually African-American, are responsible for its growth worldwide. I had the privilege of seeing Bobby Knight-coached Mike Singletary in both Indonesia and Singapore, and I now believe the Singapore Slingers' Jerran Young deserves a spot on an NBA roster. 
Young's passing is a work of art. No movement is wasted, no angle left inefficient. Despite plenty of action on the floor, I found myself just wanting to watch Young pass the ball to his teammates. 

Additionally, Young takes high-IQ shots, plays hard on defense (he had a come-from-behind block reminiscent of Tayshaun Prince on Reggie Miller), and is generally known as level-headed. If he has a weakness, it is his inability to hit the three-point shot consistently and his difficulty against stronger players in the post. Nevertheless, if America cannot find a place for him on an NBA G-League team soon, an entire generation of future players may never see a true PG or a pass the way it was meant to be. 

Michelle de Kretser, Australia's Most Interesting Living Writer

I'm about 1/4 of the way through my first Michelle de Kretser book, and I don't understand why I've not heard her name until now. I've already learned several new words ("loggia" being my favorite so far), and I've never seen such ease with the cultures of multiple countries. Kretser moves hilariously and fluidly from Sri Lanka, Singapore, Sindhi, to Sydney like no other author in human history
An example: "'Tamils do very well for themselves,' said Ash. 'They're hard-working, intelligent people. Terrifically good at maths.' He knew no Tamils but was repeating the same kind of thing his father said." 

Here's another one that made me chortle in glee: "Ash--as Ashoka preferred to be known--mentioned the dhal [daal] because he had noticed that women were moved by references to that aspect of his past. When they learned that he had lived in Sri Lanka as a child, they pictured him in a tropical garden where fruit fell to the hand, too innocent to divine the vicious historical turn that would soon cast him on the grudging benevolence of the West." 

Shame, shame on Australia for not doing a better job marketing its most interesting living writer. (January 2019) 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Walls, Walls, Walls

Arguments against illegal immigration in America reflect the same nativist sentiments in mid-1900s Germany and other declining nations where existing political players blamed outsiders. Nuance and context--necessary components of a functioning, sane civilization--are always lost when outliers are used as the basis for broad-ranging policies.

The best argument against overzealous immigration hawks was made by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country." As an outsider, MLK reflexively sought to include others. His approach is wrongly considered naive or idealistic until one realizes the ability to remove every single stranger or potential risk of violent crime requires ongoing 24/7 surveillance and a police state--the opposite of a prosperous society. Voters should be reminded the safest place in the world is often a jail, or, for maximum security, solitary confinement. On this issue, American poet Robert Frost also has a poignant line: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out." 
NBA's John Wall, #2
The thinking class must not hesitate to make connections between an unthinking, violent police state and categorical sentiments against outsiders, including illegal immigrants. In matters of security, a healthy balance is always necessary, lest one lose the most precious of human riches: liberty, human dignity, opportunity and equal rights and justice. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Ideals of the 1960s Have Been Extinguished Worldwide

My country feels that money spent on weapons of war and armies is money wasted... security must be secured through the collective and effective strength of the UN... We seek a welfare state and not a warfare state... 

If independence and freedom are not to be empty slogans then we must continue to spend as much of our resources as we can on fighting the only war that matters to the people--the war against poverty, ignorance, disease, bad housing, unemployment, and against anything and everything which deny dignity and freedom to our fellow man. 

-- S. Rajaratnam's September 21, 1965 speech to the United Nations after Singapore's recognition as an independent country 
Chua Beng Huat on weakening of social welfare ideals since 1970s
What happens when trade agreements and the ability to transport your country's products to another country are linked to security agreements and weapons purchases? Today, Singapore's largest budget item is defense spending, and men are required to serve in the military. 
Chua Beng Huat
According to the pacifist Jehovah's Witnessesan established religion, as of December 2018, Singapore has imprisoned nine of their members over their refusal to serve in Singapore's military. 

In other news, Singapore's foremost living intellectual, Kishore Mahbubani has written, "Happy societies are also more resilient societies. We have had a happiness deficit for some time." (Opinion, The Straits Times, 12 July 2014, from Can Singapore Survive? (2015), pp. 108) 

Singapore will certainly survive, but will Singaporeans be as proud as they were in 1965? Will they be as happy or as honorable as LKY's generation? 

Bonus I: from Kishore Mahbubani's Can Singapore Survive? (2015)
Bonus II