Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zimbabwe facing another rigged election

I read in the International Herald Tribune today that Zimbabwe be allowing some ‘independent’ observers to monitor it’s election this weekend – but only observers from China, Iran, Libya, Russia and Venezuela will be permitted (looks like they forgot to invite anyone from North Korea and Cuba).

The paper also reported that an extra three million ballot papers have been printed (there are six million registered voters but nine million ballot papers were printed).

If that isn’t a clear enough indication that Mugabe intends to rig the election again, then just to make sure nobody is under any misapprehensions about the outcome, the Zimbabwean army chief announced that he will not permit Mugabe to lose, and will stage a coup if there is an ‘adverse’ vote.

And not to be outdone, the police chief promised to fire live ammunition at anyone who protests the outcome.

What is the point of holding an election when it is clear that Mugabe intends to rig it as he did in 2000, 2002 and 2005?

The IHT compared Zimbabwe with its neighbor Botswana, which it described as an “oasis of peace and good governance, and “one of Africa’s wealthiest nations per capita thanks to diamonds, tourism, and sensible management” and which “has enjoyed more than four decades of honest, practical government under four popular presidents”.

Mugabe, on the other hand, the IHT says “has turned his once lush, prosperous nation into a desperate, dessicated despotism, with hunger and bitterness everywhere.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I was in the two countries 18 months ago, the contrasts were striking. In Zimbabwe the petrol stations have no petrol, the pharmacies have no medicines, the stores have little food (and what little there is, few people can afford the prices with 100,000 per cent inflation), the schools have no books (and few have any teachers) and ordinary people are struggling to survive.

I visited a school at Chisuma (see picture below) and the headmaster told me that 25 per cent of the kids were orphans because their parents had died from various diseases and ailments because the hospitals and doctors don’t have any medicines to treat anyone. He said life expectancy in Zimbabwe was now only 40 years of age (according to the IHT, for women it is now down to 34).

Mugabe is a failure. The 84-year-old dictator has let his people down miserably. In another paper he was quoted as saying he wouldn’t rig the election “otherwise he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night”. Yeah, sure. Does that mean he can sleep at night whilst thousands of his citizens die of hunger and disease?

It is time for Mugabe to go, but nobody is holding their breath that it’s going to happen this weekend.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Polluting the Kuttanad backwaters

I was reading an article in one of the Mumbai papers tonight about problems with pollution in the Kuttanad backwaters, so I did a little research on the topic on the Internet, and was saddened to see how bad the problems had become – and that I had contributed to that pollution in a small way through my night on the houseboat last week.

I came across an article titled 'Thirst below sea level' written by M. Suchitra on a Kerala-based website called, which describes itself as an alternative news site which “stands for peace and justice”.

These extracts summarise the problems (the pictures are mine):

“A boat ride will take you around the vast and beautiful stretches of backwaters. You will see women washing clothes, cleaning vessels, and collecting water for cooking and drinking — all from the same canal along which your boat speeds by. At places, toilet waste is let out into the same canal. Many households have toilets built with direct outlets into the canals and streams of the backwater system. You will also be aghast to see villagers using the dark oily water polluted by pesticides from the rice fields. Solid waste from the medical colleges at Alappuzha and Kottayam, sewage from the municipalities of Kottayam, Thiruvalla, Changanassery and Alappuzha, the oil and faecal waste from about 300 house boats which ply between Alappuzha and Kumarakom — all find an outlet in the Vembanad lake.

"We have developed immunity to all poisons," Kuttappayi, an inhabitant of the Kainakari village islet says cynically. "Even a cupful of pesticide would not kill us. Our daily intake of poison through water is much more than that." Kuttappayi's friend, Sabu, echoes him: "We are so used to the highly polluted water that if we drink pure water we may get dysentery." Kainakari is only one of 54 villages in the backwaters of Kuttanad in central Kerala that face an acute water scarcity. Kainakari, with over 6,000 households and 30,000 people, does not have even one public tap to supply safe water.

“More than 80 per cent of the people in Kuttanad rely on the contaminated canal water for their daily water requirements. About 40 per cent of them use the water without boiling it first. Interestingly, there are people who actually prefer the canal water to piped water. Says Chandramati, a housewife from a not-so-well-off family in Arayiram Kara, Kainakari, "If food is cooked in piped water, it gets spoilt by midday, but if it is cooked in canal water, it lasts till night."

“Developmental interventions have, in fact, only worked to hurt Kuttanad's fragile ecosystem. For instance, the Thannermukkan bund was constructed across the Vembanad lake in 1975, constructed to obstruct saline water intrusion into the paddy fields during the dry season, and thus bolster paddy cultivation. "The natural flushing in the entire Lower Kuttanad affected by tidal movements has ceased and water levels in the upstream region have dropped," says Madhusoodana Kurup, a fisheries expert of the Indo-Dutch team that conducted a water balance study in Kuttanad during 1988-90. The result is that the waterbody tends to become stagnant, leading to pollution. Aquatic weeds have also grown to epidemic proportions.

“The economic rationale of private owners of paddy fields therefore suggests that they convert their fields to non-agricultural purposes. They are not concerned about the ecological and environmental imbalances caused, the resultant societal loss of the economic functions of the wetland nor the economic value of the bio-diversity of wetland ecosystems.

“The environmental and ecological crisis that Kerala faces is so acute that about two-thirds of the State's population does not have access to safe drinking water. Kerala, one of the wettest regions in India, gets an average rainfall of about 300 millimetres of rain spread over a six or seven-month period. Despite this heavy rainfall, an acute drinking water shortage is felt even in the lower areas.

“During the Sabarimala pilgrimage season, some four million people cross the Pamba river to reach the hill shrine, and the river turns into a cesspool of human waste, raw sewage, and domestic and commercial garbage. Because pilgrims defecate on the river banks and in the vicinity for miles together, faecal matter gets washed into the river water.

“No wonder then, outbreaks of epidemics like rat fever and diarrhoea have seen an alarming increase. Over the past 10 years, diarrhoeal diseases resulting from inadequate water and sanitation have killed over 5,000 in Kuttanad.

“Kuttanad is a testimony to misplaced and impractical developmental schemes. The backwaters itself are vanishing due to encroachment. The Vembanad lake has been reduced to one-third its size, with 65 per cent reclaimed by the government or people.

“Only 23 per cent of the backwaters remain in Kerala and a part of this is under bunds and barriers. Fish species get extinct in bunds, as there is no way for them to disperse and breed. The land of rivers and eternal monsoons is currently dependent on tankers supplying drinking water. Now, the demand for water is constant and thirsty people are willing to pay as much as they are willing to live. In the lowest income groups, people pay a wholly disproportionate share of their income to locally run private water companies. All in all a tragedy.”

The above extracts comprise about one third of the article on countercurrents (the full article is at but they serve to illustrate just how badly the Kerala state government has managed this environmentally sensitive region.

Other articles that I read confirmed that land reclamation provides the greatest threat to the future of the backwaters, but also signficant is the pollution from the nitrates used in the rice fields (which is the main cause of most of the canals now being overgrown by water hyacinth – see picture above), as well as pesticides. And then there is the discharge from the rice barges and other tourist boats. Although these boats do provide employment for many, there are many residents of the backwaters that resent their presence with their noisy generators (used to power air conditioners and the satellite TVs at night for the comfort of the tourists on board) and the fact that they leave slicks of diesel and oil behind them (not forgetting the discharge from the toilets on board).

Apart from the tourism potential of this picturesque labyrinth of waterways (a few guidebooks call it the ‘Venice of the East’), several million people depend on the Kuttanad backwaters for their livelihoods. But they are ecologically fragile, and as the ‘Rough Guide to Kerala’ (which is the guidebook I took on this trip) puts it: “the delicate ecosystem of the Kuttanad backwaters have started to buckle under the weight of recent environmental pressures”.

If the backwaters are destroyed through pollution (and government mismanagement), then the unique way of life that millions have followed for centuries in this amazing region will no longer exist. As M. Suchitra said in his article – all in all a tragedy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

India’s confusing name changes

Whilst I was sitting at the Kochi airport terminal this afternoon waiting for my flight back to Mumbai, the PA announced that a flight to Madras was boarding. Some tourists sitting nearby appeared confused because I think they recognised the flight number – but not the destination. Their boarding passes would have shown their destination as Chennai – the new name of Madras (well actually not that new because it was changed over 10 years ago).

After a second boarding call for passengers to Madras to make their way to the gate, one of the tourists got up and checked with the ground staff, after which he hurriedly beckoned to his companions to go to the gate.

The flight departure board did show Chennai as the destination, but interestingly another flight was shown as going to Bangalore – despite that city having changed its name to Bengaluru in 2006. And, according to a PA announcement, the incoming plane for my flight to Bombay (Mumbai) was delayed because of “air traffic congestion around Bangalore”.

So even though governments have been changing the names of Indian cities from their British colonial names back to their old names, or names in local languages, many of the locals seem to prefer to use the old names – and the airlines are using a mixture of both.

For tourists it certainly is confusing, and I wonder how many have missed flights because they didn’t know the alternative names of the cities to which they were flying.

In Kerala, all the maps and guidebooks refer to Alappuzha as being the base for the houseboat tours of the backwaters. But not once did I hear anyone refer to the town by that name – they all called it Alleppy. (I did see Alappuzha on a few road signs though).

It is easy to recognise Cochin and Kochi as the same place, but some of the name changes currently being considered for other Indian cities will not be. For example, a few that are currently being considered are: Ahmedabad to Karnavati, Allahabad to Prayag, Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar, Delhi to Hastinapur or Indraprastha, Faizabad to Saket, and Lucknow to Lakshmanpuri or Lakhanpur.

Traveling in India is about to get awfully confusing!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fort Cochin - heritage under threat

I arrived back in Kochi around mid-afternoon. This time I had booked a homestay in Ernakulam. It had stopped raining so I decided to head over to Fort Cochin on the local ferry as I had not seen much of the town on my first night. In any event, I wanted to get a few shots of Fort Cochin’s iconic Chinese fishing nets against a sunset – which is something that every photographer visiting Kochi has to do.

The ferry ticket cost me five rupees – about 12 cents US. According to my guidebook, the fare was supposed to be 2.5 rupees, so either the fare just went up, or I got ripped off (the ticket man looked very annoyed when I tendered a 100 rupees note, so maybe he thought that if I had that much money I could afford to pay double). The trip took about 20 minutes and we passed a couple of gleaming white cruise ships tied up at Willingdon Island on the way – they provided a striking contrast to all the grubby grey warehouses behind them.

Fort Cochin in the daylight didn’t look much better than it did at night. It is a tragedy that this historic heritage town – the first European settlement in India – has been so neglected by the local authorities. The town has some incredible architecture dating back to the 15th century, and if more effort could be made to restore some of the more significant buildings, Fort Cochin could become the major drawcard for tourists on the west coast of India.

I read an article in The Hindu about a German historian by the name of Dr Falk Reitz who has founded an organisation called the European Foundation for Indian Heritage Monuments (EFIHM).

In the article he said he was disillusioned by the state of conservation of monuments in Fort Cochin and Kerala generally.

"Heritage is not given enough importance in the State. I have been working in Kerala since 1989 and my experience is that architectural heritage is widely neglected,” he said.

“The hordes of tourists who visit Fort Cochin will be disillusioned by the poor maintenance of the historical buildings, if nothing is done about them’” he added.

Dr Reitz said that with the Indian economy on an upswing, he was hoping that some private sponsors could be persuaded to take an interest in the preservation of Fort Cochin, and that he was also trying to get support from the European Union given that Portugal, Holland and the UK have had such a long, historical relationship with Fort Cochin.

I wish Dr Reitz the best of luck in his endeavours because there really are some fine examples of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial architecture in Fort Cochin – but many of the buildings are so dilapidated, it may be hard to save them if something is not done soon.

The other problem that Fort Cochin has is the amount of rubbish everywhere. Yes, I know India is a dirty country, and everywhere else there is rubbish, but given that Kochi is one of India’s two primary west coast tourist destinations (Goa being the other of course), it is sad that little effort is made to keep the place at least reasonably clean.

Just look at the beach in the photograph below. As you can see from the people in the picture, it’s not just foreign tourists who come here to savour Fort Cochin’s history and see its famous Chinese fishing nets, but many locals as well. But to walk along the beach you have to pick your way through so much rubbish, you wonder where it has all come from.

The impressive cantilevered fishing nets date back to sometime between 1350 and 1450 when Chinese traders first constructed them here using teak and bamboo poles. That was before the first Portuguese settlement here, so they are they very much part of Fort Cochin’s history (although the poles and nets would have been replaced many times over that period of course).

Although the rain had cleared, there was still a lot of cloud in the sky, so I wasn’t able to get my photograph of the fishing nets silhouetted against the setting sun (which is something of a cliché anyway) but I did manage to find a spot where there wasn’t too much rubbish on the beach to take the photograph below of some locals wading in the water waiting for the sun to go down.

Speeding buses, spice gardens and a steam bath

After returning to Alleppy on my houseboat yesterday morning, I headed inland, up to the Periyar National Park on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in the Western Ghat Mountains. I was hoping that the higher elevation might get me away from the persistent rain which looked like it had settled in for at least another day on the coast. It did, because after about three and a half hours driving, we broke through the low cloud at about 2,000 feet and were able to see some beautiful vistas over the mountains with the rain clouds in the valley below.

My driver was quite careful by Indian standards, but there were a few hair-raising moments when other drivers overtook us at high speed on blind corners – the drivers here are much worse than Malaysia when it comes to driving on rural roads.

I had contemplated hiring a car and driving myself, but several guidebooks had suggested that it was better to hire a car with a driver – because it doesn’t cost much more and they are more familiar with how the crazy drivers behave here. The guidebooks were right, because swerving out of the way of speeding buses, and trying to miss the cows on the road at the same time, requires a certain skill that can only be acquired from driving many years on Indian roads.

There were a lot of red and yellow local buses plying the route that we were on, and they were taking the corners on the winding roads like they had no brakes.

I guess one of them didn’t have any brakes because on the way back down this morning we saw one halfway up an embankment on the other side of the road. My driver seemed amused that I wanted to stop and take a photograph of it. I suppose that’s because it is a sight he sees every day.

After getting above the clouds we traveled through some rolling hills covered in lush green tea plantations. I stopped to take a photograph of one of the plantations, and noted some men playing cricket in some open space. It seems that in India every bit of flat ground on which something is not built or growing is turned into a cricket pitch. (Click on the photo to enlarge and you will see a cricket match in progress in the bottom left).

About an hour later we reached Vandiperiyar, a bustling town at an altitude of about 2,750 feet, which is a trading centre for the surrounding tea, coffee and pepper plantations. I took a few pictures in the busy main street (which is actually the main highway between the coast and Periyar – although you’d never guess it from the pictures below).

Twenty minutes later we reached Kumily, a spice trading centre a few kilometres from the Tamil Nadu border. I visited one of the many spice gardens in the town where they were growing vanilla, pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and many other spices. The aroma of the vanilla beans on the vines was delicious.

I stayed in a homestay on the edge of Kumily – the room was clean but the food was very basic compared to what I had enjoyed on the houseboat the previous night.

After dinner my driver took me back into town where I had a fabulous massage with ayurvedic oils followed by a steam bath that was very relaxing. It cost just 650 rupees (about US$16) for 70 minutes – very good value indeed – and eased all the stiffness from having sat in a car for five hours.

On the way back down to Kochi this morning, my driver spotted some elephants being given a bath by their handlers in one of the rivers that we crossed. I would have missed seeing them in the dense jungle, but I guess his local knowledge helps him to know where to look out for photo opportunities like this one.

It was a long trip up to Periyar and back down to Kochi – about 10 hours driving in all over the two days – but it was worth it as the scenery is constantly changing – from the low-lying backwaters and paddy fields, then up through rubber plantations, forested hills, tea plantations and finally the rugged mountains of the higher altitude Western Ghats. Along the way there are many fascinating small towns and villages which provide the traveler with some interesting insights into what rural life is like in this part of India.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Herding ducks in Kuttanad

Until yesterday afternoon, I had never seen ducks being herded. I’d heard of dogs herding ducks, but here on the backwaters of Kerala there are no dogs herding the ducks . . . they are herded by men in canoes (see pictures below). They swim along the Kuttanad canals in a sort of bulging V formation, squawking and splashing as they go. It’s amazing how the ducks at the front seem to know where to go, because the men in the canoes just follow from behind.

I believe these are a breed of ducks called Indian Runners – but I am not an expert on ducks, so I stand to be corrected if I am wrong.

Note how the man in the canoe in the picture below (the one at the back) is splashing water with one of his paddles to keep the ducks moving forward.

On the road between Alleppy and Changanassery this morning. I spotted quite a few places alongside the canals selling fresh ducks. They are very fresh because the vendors kill them on the spot for their customers (a quick twist and jerk of the neck is apparently all that is required). I felt a bit sorry for the ducks in the picture below (the ones on the right) because they all look like they are saying “don’t pick me, don’t pick me” (click on photo to enlarge). The ones on the left outside of the fence have already been killed. Not a place that I would recommend stopping if you have young children with you!

Cruising the Kerala backwaters

I couldn’t come to Kerala without doing what nearly every other visitor to this state of India does – and that is spend a night on a houseboat.

The Kuttanad backwaters are located to the south of Kochi and cover an area of over a million hectares, of which about 50,000 ha are below sea level. It is a lush, green labyrinth of canals, lakes, waterways, levees, islands, coconut groves and paddy fields.

There are over 300 houseboats that ply the canals on day and day/night trips that enable tourists to see something of the lifestyle of the 1.8 million people who live in Kuttanad. Most of the houseboats are based at Alleppy – about an hour and a half’s drive south of Kochi – and the day/night trips leave at 12 noon and return at 9.00 am the next day.

Some of the houseboats are old converted rice barges, but many have been built more recently to meet the demands of the expanding tourist trade. However, nearly all have been built using the same traditional materials as the old rice barges – anjili wood for the hull and bamboo, palm leaves and coir for the canopy – and constructed by hand using no nails.

Some of the houseboats are very luxurious with two or three air-conditioned bedrooms, a dining room and a satellite.

Others are more basic, and a few looked like they were in need of repairs – the canopy of the one in the picture above seemed to be falling apart.

I stayed on quite a small one, but it still had a crew of three – the captain, a deckhand and a cook.

After leaving Alleppy we cruised for about an hour before stopping by the side of a canal for lunch. We tied up at a levee where a rice farmer was building a small house. Whilst having lunch I watched them unload two piles of sand from a large canoe. They did it all by hand using plastic buckets – they didn’t even have a shovel.

After lunch we continued cruising the labyrinth of waterways watching the local people going about their daily lives – everyone here travels either by boat or by foot along the levees. It was raining most of the day, so wasn’t the best for photography, but at least the rain kept the temperature down to a pleasantly cool 24-25 degrees.

Apart from the houseboats, the waterways are busy with the public transport vessels (ferries and launches) that provide services between the towns and villages as well as lots of small craft like canoes and basket boats.

The basket boats looked more difficult to paddle than the canoes which most people were using - especially when trying to get through the water hyacinth that chokes many of the waterways.

This is one of the local shops that you see along the waterways.

Along the way we saw many styles of local housing.

The house in the picture above is fairly typical of the types of houses you will see along the Kuttanad waterways – most will have one or two canoes tied up in front. This house had six or seven – so maybe they were entertaining visitors.

Some people live in much more basic conditions though.

Occasionally you will see a few luxury houses where obviously wealthier people are living. As is often the case in India, you see very rich people living right alongside very poor people.

During the afternoon I bought some large freshwater prawns from a fisherman who had come up alongside my boat. He was wearing a shower cap to protect himself from the light drizzle (not a very macho fisherman I thought!).

I asked the cook on board to prepare them for dinner. I bought a kilo for 900 rupees (about US$22.50) – expensive for India, but they were worth every rupee (I couldn’t eat them all so shared them with the crew).

The prawns were as fresh as fresh can be, and the cook grilled them in a delicious spicy paste that made me rate them as probably the best prawns I have ever eaten. The cook told me that he had made the paste from ginger, garlic, tumeric, fish marsala and garam marsala. He served them up with a delicious array of Indian dishes – I had not expected the food to be so good on a houseboat.

Lunch and dinner were both excellent, although breakfast was very basic (an omelette and some bread). But I enjoyed the experience. The cost was quite reasonable – 6,000 rupees (about US$150) given that it included three meals (same price for one or two people) and that I was being attended to by a crew of three. I gave each of the crew a 500 rupees tip when we got back to Alleppy, and they seemed very happy with that.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wine weenies in the Fishnet Bar

I was in Mumbai yesterday, and I have more business there next week, but as today is Prophet Mohammad’s birthday (called Milad-Un-Nabi in India) and tomorrow is Good Friday – both public holidays in India – so I headed down to Kerala for the long weekend.

The flight was supposed to take only 90 minutes, but it took over three hours including nearly an hour on the ground in Mumbai waiting for a take-off slot (Mumbai is getting to be such a busy airport since the introduction of budget airlines which have made it cheaper for Indians to travel by air) and about half an hour in a bumpy holding pattern over Kochi waiting for a storm to clear. It is not supposed to rain in Kerala in March, but at least the rain made it cool

It was dark by the time I got to Fort Cochin where I was to spend the night. The narrow streets of Fort Cochin are much like they were in the eighteenth century – except that most of the roads have a tarmac surface now. A few of its old buildings have been renovated and turned into heritage ‘boutique’ hotels or shops, but most are still fairly rundown.

Around the streets of Fort Cochin there are many large tamarind trees and other shade trees that look to be hundreds of years old – they add to the historic atmosphere but are also home to hundreds of noisy crows, which is why many of the restaurants have bird netting around their terraces (to prevent the crows from swooping into restaurants to grab food off diners’ plates).

After dinner I had a craving for a glass of wine, so I dropped into the Fishnet Bar – just down the street from the hotel where I was staying. (No, it was not a seedy place – nothing to do with fishnet stockings – it takes its name from the nearby Chinese fishing nets).

The bar was as dark as the streets outside. The ‘bar’ was nothing much more than a bare room with seven tables around which about 20 foreigners were sitting. Inside there was another even darker room full of Indians where there seemed to be some heavy drinking going on (and maybe gambling as well). In one corner there was a small bar – much like the type you see in people’s homes – and an old refrigerator.

I asked for a glass of wine which was listed on the drinks menu for 100 rupees (about US$2.50). A reasonable price I thought until I saw the barman measuring the wine using a 60 ml spirits measure.

The barman delivered the wine to me. It was exactly 60 ml - about an inch in the bottom of a champagne flute. The only other time I have been served such a small quantity of wine in a glass has been at banquets in China where the wine (usually the Great Wall red) is served more for making toasts than for drinking.

I had to order two glasses to satisfy my craving. Even then at 120 ml it was still less than what most restaurants or bars usually serve in a single glass (most places serve 150 – 250 ml when ordering wine by the glass).

I sipped my two glasses of wine slowly to make them last. I was certainly not going to get a hangover in this place.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Political upsets in Malaysia

A ‘political tsunami’ is how the local papers described the Malaysian election result over the weekend.

Malaysian voters turned against their government in massive numbers.

In fact, the government lost the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia, and it was only the states of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia that saved the government from losing the popular vote nationwide.

The government coalition scraped in with 51.5 per cent of the popular vote, but they still managed to retain a comfortable majority in parliament (140 seats to the 82 won by opposition parties) due to the gerrymander – but it was their worst performance since independence 51 years ago.

The 82 seats won by the opposition (up from 19) was enough to reduce the government’s majority to less than two-thirds (thus preventing the government from changing the Constitution at will), and in the process the opposition parties won five states – the most they have ever held.

Many Ministers and high profile politicians lost their seats, and one even died of a heart attack as the results came in and the extent of the opposition’s gains became apparent.

This evening I had dinner with some senior government officials and they were still in a state of shock.

“We don’t understand what happened,” one told me.

I just smiled and bit my tongue. It was clear what had happened – the people of Malaysia didn’t like the way that the government was running the country, and they had spoken. Corruption, cronyism, inflation, security and racial and religious tensions were all issues that had been swept under the carpet by the government during the election campaign.

What was most remarkable about the result was that the government had lost the popular vote on peninsula Malaysia despite its total control of the mainstream media – broadcast and print – which meant that the opposition had no opportunity to raise issues or present policies through the mainstream media.

The broadcast and print media had been saturated with pro-government advertising. The opposition couldn’t buy a second of airtime or an inch of print space – so they had to rely totally on reaching voters face-to-face and through the Internet and text messaging.

I suspect that the government completely underestimated the influence of the Internet (the only medium in Malaysia that is not censored).

Since the last election, nearly a million new voters have been enrolled – all young voters, many of whom would have had access to the Internet for uncensored news. As well, thousands of deceased voters (who in the last election had somehow managed to cast votes for the government from their graves) had been removed from the rolls following loud protests by the opposition parties.

One young Malaysian that I spoke with told me that it was “not fair” that there was a total blackout in the mainstream media on coverage of anything that the opposition does – unless it is something that puts them in a bad light.

“That’s what drove us to the Internet,” he said. “Only the Internet news sites and blogs give us unbiased coverage of what is happening in our country.”

That’s a message that the government needs to take heed of. Whilst I doubt that they will give up control of the mainstream media anytime soon, it will be interesting in the coming months to see how the media will handle the reporting of state government affairs in the five states that the opposition parties now control.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A country in meltdown

There was a story on the front page of this weekend’s Herald Tribune about the fact that inflation in Zimbabwe had now reached 100,000 per cent per annum. The story was accompanied by a picture of lemons for sale in a market with a sign saying "$1,950,000 per kg”.

Back in 2003, a Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than a US dollar. But under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, the country started to experience runaway inflation in 2004. When I was in Zimbabwe in September 2006, a cup of coffee cost 800 Zimbabwe dollars. Based on today’s exchange rate, a cup of coffee will now cost over 100,000 dollars.

When I left Zimbabwe, I had a 500 Zimbabwean dollar note left in my wallet, which was then worth a little over two US dollars. Today that note is worthless because it had an expiry date printed on it of 31 December 2007 (Zimbabwe dollars are the only currency that I know of that have expiry dates printed on the notes). But even if it hadn’t expired, it would now be worth less than two cents.

Mugabe has turned a once wealthy country (Southern Rhodesia) into one of the poorest in the world through gross economic mismanagement.

People are dying because there are no medicines. They are starving because there is no food. People’s savings have been wiped out. Over a quarter of the population is living with HIV/AIDS. Infant mortality is more than 50 deaths per thousand live births, and average life expectancy is only 39 years and that is rapidly reducing.

Yet we hardly ever hear anything from the international community condemning Mugabe for his incompetence and atrocious abuses of human rights.

Maybe George W. Bush should have left Saddam Hussein alone and taken out Robert Mugabe instead.

I feel sorry for the poor people of Zimbabwe about what Mugabe has done to them, and even sorrier that few people in the rest of the world seem to care.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Malaysia goes to the polls

Today Malaysians vote in a general election – but the result is a foregone conclusion. The present government has been in power for more than 50 years and it is likely to be many more years to come.

I had always believed that the main reason the opposition parties could not make any headway was that because the government controlled the domestic media – print and broadcast – which meant that come election time, the government gets pages and pages of space and hours of airtime devoted to reports about how good a job it has done, but the opposition gets zilch.

The concept of ‘right of reply’ is unknown in Malaysia, so government Ministers can attack opposition leaders in the press and broadcast media (and some of the attacks are unbelievably venomous) knowing that the electorate will only hear one side of the story.

And newspapers, TV channels and radio stations daren’t accept any advertising bookings from the opposition parties, otherwise they would run the risk of losing their licences.

Opposition candidates have to reply on old fashioned door-knocking and local rallies to get their messages across.

As I said, I’d always believed that the lack of access to the media was the reason why the government had been able to stay in power for so many years, but it appears that is not the main reason.

Whilst I was reading Michael Backman’s book ‘Asia Future Shock’ during the week, I noticed his website address on the back cover flap (, so logged onto it and found some interesting articles about Malaysia to supplement what was in the book.

One article, written only last week for the Melbourne Age, explained that Malaysian electorates are severely malapportioned, with the smallest rural electorates (which favour the government) having only a sixth of the voters of the largest urban electorates.

According to Backman, this resulted in the government picking up 198 or about 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats on just 64 per cent of the popular vote, and the opposition being rewarded with just 21 or about 10 per cent of the seats with 36 per cent of the popular vote.

A very good definition of a gerrymander in anyone’s terms.

But what amazes me about those figures is that the opposition can still manage to pick up 36 per cent of the popular vote without any access to the mainstream media (apart from the Internet that is, which is becoming increasingly influential amongst urban Malaysians).

That would suggest a very large level of dissatisfaction with the way in which the government is running the country.

In his Melbourne Age article, Backman asks the question whether the government should be re-elected for another term.

He details a whole list of scandals (most of which relate to corruption and cronyism) that have beset the government since the last election, and says the answer is no.

He then asks whether the opposition should be elected, but again says no, describing the opposition as “a shambolic assortment of the disaffected rather than a competent alternative government.”

“In no way is it ready to govern,” he adds.

So where does that leave Malaysia?

In a bind I suppose.

I’m reminded of the expression: “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

Today a lot of people will vote for the devil they know, but I think there will be a large number of people voting for the opposition to send a message to the government.

A stronger opposition would help to improve transparency and governance as well as breaking down the media censorship that constrains freedom of speech in Malaysia.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A book not banned in Malaysia

Tonight I finished reading Michael Backman’s new book, ‘Asia Future Shock’ – it is an excellent book and one that I would strongly recommend that every expatriate working in Asia should read.

The thing that shocked me the most though was that fact that I was able to buy it in Malaysia in an election week. This is one book that I would have expected to be on the banned list. The chapter on Malaysia was the most scathing in the book, accusing Malaysia of having squandered everything that it had going for it since independence in 1957 through wasteful government policies and corruption.

Backman states that few countries are as good as Malaysia as wasting money, and highlights the fact that 35 per cent of the country’s budget is supported by oil revenues – but the oil reserves will be exhausted in 2025.

“The national obsession seems to be to extract the nation’s natural resources and fritter away the proceeds on projects aimed at helping to alleviate what can only be described as a national inferiority complex”, he says.

He then goes on to highlight that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to office in 2003 promising to clean up corruption, but “to date, his has been one of the most ineffectual efforts imaginable.”

Insightful opinions from a well-respected observer of Asian politics, but of course such comments would never see the light of day in the Malaysian media because that is controlled by the government (Internet blogs excepted!).

So why didn’t the government ban the book?

My guess is that if they did, there would be a risk of it generating a story on the international news channels, and that would have only piqued the interest of Malaysian readers to procure the book through other channels (banned books are often smuggled in from Thailand or Indonesia and sold for twice the price) and this would have only served to highlight Backman’s criticism of the Malaysian government at a time when the domestic media was telling the electorate what a good job the government was doing.

So I guess the censors thought it was better to quietly let it through, assuming no more than a couple of hundred people would buy it (and many of those, like me, wouldn’t be voting anyway).

My ‘theory’ is supported by the fact that in today’s International Herald Tribune there was a story on the front page about a group of opposition party members who tried to deliver a pillow to the Prime Minister “to make him more comfortable”, alleging that he sleeps in Parliament and sleeps in Cabinet meetings.

The story went on to claim that both members of the opposition and of his own party had described him as “sluggish and listless”, and that even if the government wins another term (which is a foregone conclusion), there would be pressure to replace him.

I was initially surprised that the censors had let that story through on the day before the election.

Normally the censors go through the International Herald Tribune with a fine toothcomb because on the arts pages they always paint black boxes over any photographs of paintings by old masters that might show bare breasts, or stone statues with exposed genitals (Michelangelo would be amused at what offends the Malaysian censors).

There is no way they could have missed the derogatory front page article about the Prime Minister.

So I came to the same conclusion that they must have decided that if they removed the article, then that might generate a story about government censorship on the international news channels – and that wouldn’t be good the day before the election. So I guess they assumed, like with Michael Backman’s book, that the few thousand people that read the International Herald Tribune in Malaysia are either expats who won’t be voting, or locals who are sufficiently well educated to either be government loyalists or members of the opposition – neither of which would be changing the way they will vote tomorrow.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Cathay’s Chief Pilot upsets his bosses

I was reading a story in the Herald Tribune today about Cathay Pacific having sacked its Chief Pilot, Ian Wilkinson, for having done a low level flyby with a new Boeing 777 jet on a delivery flight from Seattle.

Apparently Captain Wilkinson’s bosses were not amused about him using a US$200 million airplane to show off his flying skills.

Such flybys have been done many times in the past, and are a sort of tradition in the aviation industry, but he was sacked because he hadn’t got the airline’s approval to do it.

The story said a video of the flyby had found its way to YouTube, so I went looking for it. I found it, but the quality wasn’t that good, but whilst I was searching for it I came across some amazing footage of a KLM MD-10 landing in a strong crosswind (click twice on the play button in the middle of the video screen):

Absolutely brilliant flying by the KLM pilot!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

For sale: 48,000 bottles of indelible ink

Today the Malaysian government announced that it would not be using indelible ink to mark the fingers of voters in the forthcoming election

Having spent 2.4 million Malaysian ringgits to buy 48,000 bottles of the ink, the Election Commission has discovered that it is unconstitutional to use indelible ink

The Election Commission chairman, Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, was quoted in the local paper as saying: “In the beginning, we thought it was just an ordinary process that we could just introduce but then we realised, after getting all the necessary advice from the legal experts, that we would have to take a look at the Constitution”.

Hello? Didn’t anyone think about asking the lawyers BEFORE spending RM2.4 million?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Malaysia’s bag snatching epidemic

Malaysia is not amongst the safest countries in Asia, but it’s not amongst the least safe either – statistically it falls somewhere in the middle. But in recent years, street crime – and in particular bag snatching – has been on the rise.

In the past month I personally know of three women who have had their bags snatched. One in Petaling Street (Chinatown) who wasn’t injured (fortunately she let go of her bag), one in Petaling Jaya near the PJ Hilton – she didn’t let go of her bag and was dragged along the ground suffering cuts and bruises – and one near Sungai Wang in the city. The last victim was walking with her boyfriend, but that didn’t stop a motorcyclist from grabbing her bag. Unfortunately she didn’t let go and is still in hospital with head injuries.

She is lucky to be alive though because several victims have died in the past few years from hitting their heads on the kerb or the road when they were dragged along by the motorcyclists. Incidents such as those that lead to fatalities are usually reported in the press, but most of the others aren’t – unless the victim is a local politician or show biz personality.

If I personally know three victims from the past month, the number of bag snatchings that are happening every day in the urban areas of Malaysia (I guess they don’t happen so much in rural areas where there are fewer strangers around) must be in the dozens – perhaps even hundreds.

The offenders are rarely caught as most bag snatchings are done by two men on a motorcycle – one to ‘drive’ and one to snatch. As soon as they have the bag in their hands, they disappear at high speed through the traffic. Sometimes they will slash the bag strap with a knife – and risk slashing the victim’s arm as well – but often they drag the victim along the road until she can hold on no longer – and it is these cases that sometimes lead to fatalities. (Moral: let go of your bag – whatever you have in it is not worth your life).

Apart from the few fatalities that are reported (and that may not be all of them), the local papers seem reluctant to devote much space to reporting bag snatchings. Perhaps that is because the government (which controls the local media in Malaysia) believes that reporting on the bag snatchings would frighten away tourists.

A few years ago, the local media was not allowed to mention the existence of the annual smoke haze from Indonesia for fear of frightening away tourists – but eventually that restriction had to be dropped because the government couldn’t control the international satellite channels reporting on it.

But wouldn’t it be better for first-time visitors to the country to be warned so that they can be aware of the problem and take the necessary precautions? Surely that is better than visitors becoming victims and returning to their home countries to relate their traumatic experiences in Malaysia (two of the three victims that I know were visitors).

There’s no easy solution to the problem of bag snatching because the perpetrators are usually unemployed youths, illegal immigrants or drug addicts – so it is a reflection of wider social problems in the community – but making visitors and ordinary citizens more aware of the scale of the epidemic would go a long way towards raising awareness of the situations that have led to bags being snatched.

The online Malaysia Travel Guide says this about street crime in the country:

“In every street crime incident there are always three aspects - a victim, an offender and an opportunity for a criminal. The criminal is always on a look out for easy target, if you are showing precaution to put off his intentions, he will move on to someone else. Thus best way of breaking the ‘triangle of street crime’ is to remove the opportunity.”

The grammar’s a bit rough but the advice is spot-on. Remove the opportunity and there will be far fewer potential victims for the bag snatchers.

In my view, the local media should be playing a more pro-active role in raising awareness.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Earthquakes caused by gays

I was browsing the website tonight and read a story about an Israeli politician by the name of Shlomo Benizri, who belongs to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, who told the Israeli parliament today that the only way to stop earthquakes was to stop liberalising laws concerning homosexuals.

Apparently Mr Benizri believes that “passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the state of Israel” is why earthquakes happen.

Where do these nutters come from?

Another story I read was about a dying solar system known as WR104 that was discovered by University of Sydney astronomer Peter Tuthill which contains a Wolf-Ravet star – which is the name given to a star in its last stages of life before it explodes in a massive supernova.

When this happens, the story told us, it could unleash a burst of gamma-ray radiation in the direction of Earth that could wipe out 50 per cent of the world’s ozone layer in 10 seconds. And the consequence of that, apparently, is that the radiation the depleted ozone layer will let through will kill us all.

Perhaps Mr Benizri will blame that on gays too.

PS: No need to panic - the star may not explode for another couple of hundred thousand years according to Dr Tuthill.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Chinese English speakers soon to overtake US

I’ve been reading a new book today by Michael Backman called ‘Asia Future Shock’. I’ve been a fan of Michael Backman since his first book, the international bestseller ‘Asian Eclipse: Exposing the Dark Side of Business in Asia’ was published in 1999 (and which I extensively used as a reference work when doing the international business unit of my MBA) so I snapped up his latest offering when I saw it in a bookstore last night.

It has some fascinating facts and forecasts about where Asia is heading in the next 20 years.

One fact that surprised me was in relation to which country in Asia had the highest number of English speakers. Like most people, I would say that was India, but Backman points out that India only has 38 million adult English speakers – about 5 per cent of its population. The honour of the highest number of English speakers in Asia goes to the Philippines, where about 95 per cent of its 90 million people can speak English.

But what was even more surprising, I learned, was that China is turning out about 20 million English speakers a year, and according to a British Council report quoted by Backman, there are currently 176.7 million schoolchildren and adults studying English in China. This extraordinary situation means that it won’t be long before there are more English speakers in China than in the United States!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

2.3 million Americans behind bars

Which country has the largest number of people in jail? Like me, I’d guess that most people would say China or Russia. But that’s not the case. According to a story in this morning’s Herald Tribune, the number of people in jail in the United States has reached 2.3 million – that’s one per cent of the adult population of 230 million.

It’s quite disturbing to learn that 1 in 100 adult Americans are in jail. China is a distant second with 1.5 million in jail, but of course they have four times the population.

The story was based on a just-released report by the Pew Center on the States which highlighted that the incarceration rates were even higher for some groups – 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men are behind bars, 1 in 15 adult black men and 1 in 9 black men aged 20 to 34.

I suppose these shocking figures could be a consequence of the fact that more crimes are solved in the US than in most other countries, but it is also a sad reflection of the breakdown in values in modern day America.

For a country that spends a lot of time trying to impose its own values on cultures in other parts of the world, it is not setting a very good example at home.