Thursday, January 24, 2019

Scotland: Overlooked and Underappreciated

It took England 400 years to conquer the Scots, and they still haven't forgotten it. 
From Edinburgh Castle.
From the National Museum of Scotland.
The Scots--as independent as possible post-Acts-of-Union--print their own currency, 
Scottish currency is accepted in England, though I've never seen it.
fly their own flag, sing their own songs, have their own accent, 
From The Royal Dick pub in Edinburgh.
I promise I am not making up the name.
and mock the English every chance they get. One clue the Scots are more rational than their southern neighbor is they voted to remain in the EU, while the English voted to leave, throwing the U.K. into a political morass from which it still hasn't recovered. ("Pulling out doesn't stop people from coming," noted one political cartoonist on the immigration issue.) Interestingly, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, "We all belong to many countries," a marked contrast to English PM Theresa May's 2016 comment, "If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word 'citizenship' means." 
From Dean's I Must Belong Somewhere (2017)
Indeed, the Scots have a long tradition of rationality. They practically invented life insurance through the Scottish Widow's Fund, a pooling of funds for the elderly, 
From Armchair Books in Edinburgh.
and the Scots' list of inventions doesn't stop there. They also invented penicillin, the pedal bicycle, and Europe's first passenger steamboat (Montrose and Dundee's histories are inseparable from ships)--and that's only some of the "p"s. Growing up in California, where numerous parks are named after John Muir, I assumed he was Californian. In fact, he was born and raised near Edinburgh, and after moving to America, was instrumental in preserving Yosemite and other national parks. 
Outside Edinburgh's Writers' Museum.
Adam Smith, David Hume, the creator of Sherlock Holmes... the compilation of "Famous Scots You Didn't Know Were Scots" goes on and on. Even Englishwoman J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter novel in various Edinburgh cafes, where she moved to be close to her sister. (As a single parent, walking to nearby cafes was her preferred method for lulling her baby to sleep.) 
On bathroom wall of The Elephant House cafe.
Bluegrass and folk music in the American Appalachia? Their roots are Scottish, derived from songs Robert Burns collected on his local travels and modified. (One such song was "Auld Lang Syne"--which should not be confused with the delightful Auld Handsel Monday.) 
From Glasgow's Mitchell Library.
Despite their many accomplishments, the Scots harbor an inferiority streak larger than any steamboat they ever built. 

A recent best-selling book in Scotland? Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass--by a Scottish rapper. How does Scotland's pre-eminent historian describe his country? "A History of the Dispossessed." It's easy to forget now, with Scotland's North Sea oil wealth gushing everywhere since 1969, but much of Scotland was once a no-go zone. 

Between November 1930 and May 1935, Glasgow's unemployment rate was around 30%, and the Glasgow Razor Gangs, named for their weapon of choice, were running amok. As recently as 2005, only Finland had a higher murder rate in the developed world than Scotland. North Sea oil wealth still hasn't completely transformed mostly rural Scotland--
around 49% of Edinburgh, the capital, is made up of green space, and the reason some of the world's best strawberry jam comes from Scotland is because its relatively low population leaves plenty of room for farmland.
At the National Museum of Scotland (free admission), I came across a video of a Scottish government official lamenting the number of Scots leaving and taking their talents elsewhere, especially to Canada and Australia. 
From Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City
In the most poignant part of the video, a young couple discussed their thoughts on leaving Scotland. The wife did most of the talking until the very end, when the man chimed in, saying, "We Scots are hard workers." Indeed they are, mate. And from what I could see, mostly good people, too. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2020)

Bonus IRobert Louis Stevenson, on travel: 

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.

Bonus II: The name Edinburgh may derive from Northumberland; Edwin, the King of Northumbria from 616 to 632, built a town on the River Forth that became known as Edwin's Burgh.

Bonus III: Full disclosure: I attended first grade in Edinburgh, so I may be a wee biased in favor of the Scots. 

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 () was born in 570 A.D.) 

A diversion: Muhammad (PBUH) initially fled to Medina to escape assassination attempts; however, 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), making friends with outsiders, including but not limited to African slaves. (FYI: 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 and protection 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 second, the poor, especially slaves, whom he freed, co-opted, and elevated into positions of authority (see stories of Bilal ibn Rabah, Salman Al-Farsi, and Suhayb ar-Rumi aka Sohaib ibn Sinan). ["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. 
The Bible's New Testament is starkly different than the Koran on the matter of slavery.
See 1 Peter 2:18.
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 under a monotheistic and Abrahamic banner, 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.) 
Being too young didn't stop the Europeans from choosing successors,
perhaps their way of ensuring the military's influence.
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--altered the Prophet's intended inheritance (the Fadak estate) to his daughter, Fatima Zahra, allegedly causing her to suffer a miscarriage and death less than three 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--almost every caliph after Muhammad (PBUH) and Abu Bakr was assassinated or poisoned, not just Ali ibn Abi Talib. Additionally, the Fadak estate was eventually returned to Fatima's heirs by an Ummayyad caliph. 

[Timeline: Abu Bakr (632 to 634AD), includes Ridda Wars (Arabic: حروب الردة‎) aka the Wars of Apostasy from 632 to 633; Umar I (634 to 644); Uthman (644 to 656); Ali (656 to 661)] 

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. According to Professor M. Umaruddin of Aligarh University, the "Abbasids put to death not only all the members of Ummayad family but also all their supporters. They disillusioned the Shi'as by killing them wholesale." (The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Ghazzali) 
Succession and internecine feuds were common in Europe, too.
In fact, both the Sunnis and Shia can point to a third interloper, the Khawarij group, as the source of division within Islam. The Khawarij (aka the Seceders) were about 12,000 people, a hardline sect that refused to accept Ali's governance, eventually assassinating him. 

In any case, after 755 A.D. and after the end of Ummayad rule, "Persian culture and civilization asserted itself dominantly and triumphantly in the Muslim world." (Id., pp. 10) "Shi'ism in particular appealed to the Persians, who further developed the Shi'ite doctrines of the Imamate and evolved most of the transcendental theories about it. The two main sects of the Sh'ias, the sect of the Seven and the sect of the Twelve appeared during this period," a split once again caused by the familiar issue of succession. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far Al-Sadiq, disinherited his eldest son Isma'il, nominating his younger son Musa al-Kazim instead. It seems the Twelvists chose incorrectly, disappearing circa 873 AD, leaving the "Seventies" to follow the son of Is'mail, a man named Muhammad who favored allegories, storytelling, and even wine to interpret the Quran. (Id.) (Were Rumi, born around 1207, and his mentor Shams, born around 1185, influenced by the Seventies? I don't know.)  

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 immediately 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 complete patterns in historical displacement, rendering history books woefully incomplete. Consequently, when studying history, remember: you are learning a sliver of a sliver of a moment in time. Be humble. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus 1: Europeans were not scientifically advanced until they came into contact with post-Islamic Arab civilization. See 

"[V]irtually all the science and technology of the classic world had already been passed on to Europe by the Arabs - a process which had begun before 1100 and was completed by the time Constantinople fell. Although this Arab revival of classic learning was the chief influence in Europe's scientific awakening, this fact has been popularly disregarded." 

Algebra is an Arabic term. (So is mocha, in case you didn't know.) As for freedom, the first declaration of human rights comes from the Persians. See 

"The Declaration of Human Rights written by Cyrus the Great has been hailed as the first charter of human rights, predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millenniums." 

Finally, one reason the Persian Empire lasted around 430 years (224 to 651 A.D.)--longer than the Greeks and Romans (14 to 395 A.D.)--is because it was one of the most tolerant empires in the history of the world. 

Bonus II: Lisa Ling, in 2019, unintentionally showed a significant overlap between Arab Islam's and Genghis Khan's military success: "I think also in this period of class divide is really a moving one, because he was this character [Khan] who was a slave at one time himself, went on to conquer two thirds of the population of the earth, because he elevated people, he elevated slaves, and the lowest level of human to rise up in his army." 

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 to become much better than your neighbors and trading partners, but not vastly so, lest you cause unpredictable dislocations.) 
From Bloomberg (2018)
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. 

© Matthew Rafat (2019)

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 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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Presentation by Mikhail Melvin Goh of Have Halal, Will Travel

National Library, Singapore,
January 9, 2019 

Mikhail Melvin Goh, founder of Have Halal, Will Travel (#HHWT), spoke on behalf of Eye on Asia, a National Library project designed to increase interest in ASEAN. 
A summary of his presentation and ensuing Q&A session is below:

Melvin was his name before he converted to Islam, and he now goes by  the Muslim name Mikhail (a variation of Michael, the Archangel).

Goh's background in digital marketing has proven highly useful in his current endeavor. His travel publications reach around 9.4 million viewers.

Melvin calls Muslims--all 1.8 billion of them--the biggest invisible market segment worldwide. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have 240 million Muslims. Indonesia in particular is seeing a boom in its middle class, creating new demands for services and products. Yet, despite these numbers, as recently as three to four years ago, no major companies were consistently targeting this group.

Melvin was drinking ocha/tea at a Mongolian restaurant in Tokyo when a terrorist attack occurred in Paris. Someone asked him, why are Muslims killing non-Muslims, and what is halal? Japan’s exposure to Muslims is mostly through its 100,000 domestic Muslim residents. At that moment, he thought to himself, "What if I use this platform I’ve created to facilitate meaningful exchanges?"

Islam means submission "to God." The five pillars of Islam are: shahada (belief in one God, with Muhammad (PBUH) as his final messenger); salah (prayer); zakat (charity); Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca); and fasting (during Ramadan).

Halal means permissible. It impacts multiple industries, including food, cosmetics, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals. For example, alcohol, which is haram (aka impermissible), is a key ingredient in many drugs. In terms of lifestyle, key halal areas include food, travel, fashion, and Islamic banking (sharia-compliant finance). 

What's the biggest trend in travel? Muslims are looking for authentic travel experiences. 74% “wish to immerse themselves in culture.” Japan is an oft-cited destination. Sight-seeing and local food are top desires.

About 20% of Muslims [geographic area not specified] are highly educated--doctors, engineers, and scientists who travel frequently.

Muslim travelers want autonomy, authenticity (to live like locals), and a sense of belonging.

Goh's recommendations for businesses: take stock what you already have—many workers in larger companies are already Muslim, so ask them any questions you have; get the basics right; promote your products through the right channels; and focus on experiences.

Q&A session

Q: The halal designation seems to be overused. Do you ever wonder if your industry is diluting the concept of halal by using it across so many different areas? 

A: Halal is a set of principles but it varies widely; for example, in SE Asia, prawns are halal, but in many places in the Middle East, they’re not. Certification is not the only way to go; over-labeling is occurring because of market demand.

Q: What were your experiences and challenges in working with governments?

A: “China is using tourism as a weapon” in terms of directing travel agencies not to send tourists to certain countries when political disputes arise. For example, the number of Chinese tourists in Korea dramatically dropped for a time because of the Chinese government’s actions and recommendations. In short, China mixes tourism and politics. Overall, governments must first realize Islamic travelers are a lucrative market. Some governments think Muslims are a national security issue and prefer to “wait and see.” In Australia, some people don’t like Muslims, and windows displaying halal signs were smashed after terrorist attacks in other countries.

Q: How do you find halal shops overseas? Some shops aren’t listed even though they are halal.

A: It’s [people like] you. Most countries are not like Singapore, top-down, consistent—a lot of things occur at a grassroots level. We have several ways of getting information. One, as I mentioned, is user input; second is official government agencies; third is writers. 

Q: How do you scale?

A: Scaling is like piloting a rocketship into space. If you don’t know where you’re flying to, there’s no point. How much fuel 
(capital, user engagement) do you put into the rocket? In which direction do you point the rocket? 

Q: What are your sources of income?

A: Consulting for airlines and delivery services, especially in the area of customization for Muslim customers. 

Q: How do you reach out to your 9.4 million viewers and build trust?

A: We found people who were interested in the same things as us, and who were willing to give information because they believed in us. We gain trust by having standards and having a vision. We are not separatists—we do not say, “We are halal, you are not.” We believe in integration. Be human, stand for something.

Q: How do you see Singapore's role in halal issues? 

A: We are a multi-ethnic population. We have been living side by side for a very long time. We are very blessed because of our history. One of the things Singapore faces as a challenge is the articulation of the next step. Why would I travel if I'm going to eat the same thing [in Singapore as in Indonesia]? It becomes a question of story-telling and differentiation. The key is to improve services across the board, not just food. Thankfully, governments are willing to listen. 

Q: What is the future for halal travel in Thailand?

A: Thailand, like Singapore, is very blessed [in terms of diversity]. Bangkok has whole streets with Muslim businesses. Thailand is also blessed in terms of geography—its time zone means short flight times for ASEAN residents. People are nice. The challenge for the Thai government is to get tourists out of Bangkok and into places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc.