Posted by: rupaksharma | November 5, 2010

Where There’s A Will, There’s Money

China’s prosperous Guangdong province has embarked on the next phase of economic development with focus on creating a knowledge-based economy

Rupak D. Sharma in Zhuhai, Guangdong
Asia News Network 

The sound of hammers banging on wooden planks greets visitors at Sunbird Yacht Company in Zhuhai, a coastal city in China’s southern Guangdong province. Inside, several workers are fixing windows, cabinets and modern communication equipment to the freshly minted frames of yachts that will soon be dispatched to various places inside and outside the country.

“This one will be sent to Seattle (in the US),” Victor Cheung, the tour guide and translator, says pointing to one of the many yachts sitting on an elevated metal platform. After taking a few steps, he points towards another luxury sailing vessel. “This one was ordered by a businessman from Inner Mongolia,” he says.

Then there is another one, which at 88 feet is going to be the biggest yacht ever built in China. “It costs 25 million yuan (US$3.7 million) and is being made for someone in Beijing,” Cheung says without elaborating, citing privacy reasons.

The company is now planning to build a 150-foot-long yacht worth around 100 million yuan ($14.9 million). “This will be one of the biggest yachts in the world,” Bai yin Li, vice president of Shenzhen stock exchange-listed Sunbird Yacht tells AsiaNews.

Sunbird is one of the emerging companies in China that largely caters to people with deep pockets, both in the domestic and international markets. It manufactures products with advanced design and technology that not only offers greater performance, comfort and safety but also fits in with the lifestyle of today’s rich.

Hi-tech companies like these are exactly what the Guangdong government is looking for to fuel the province’s future growth.

Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong and Macau, is a prosperous province and is also known as the economic powerhouse of China. It has been at the forefront of the country’s economic boom and has been growing rapidly ever since opening up its economy to the world some three decades ago.

In these 30 years, the province’s economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 13.6 per cent. In the first eight months of 2010 alone its GDP stood at 2.73 trillion yuan ($408 billion)—higher than the annual GDP of many countries in Southeast Asia. If it moves ahead at the current pace, its economy is expected to overtake that of South Korea by 2012.

Statistically speaking, this is an astonishing feat. But this growth was attained largely with the help of labour-intensive manufacturing units that churn out inexpensive goods like apparel, footwear and toys. Now, the province fears these very industries that shaped its economy may impair future growth.

Guangdong very well knows that it cannot always rely on the old model of driving the economy with the help of cheap labour. The province has felt the shortage of blue-collar workers this year and had to raise the wages partly due to pressure from workers and partly to attract migrant workers to this province. It also knows labour will eventually become more expensive over the years as more than 20 million of its migrant workers start seeking jobs near their hometowns which are also booming these days. This will only push labour-intensive manufacturing industries based here to other Southeast Asian countries like Viet Nam, Cambodia and even Laos. Such a situation will not only adversely affect the province but the entire country.

Lin Xiong, chief of publicity department of Guangdong Provincial Committee recently told an Asian media delegation that “a structural change is necessary for sustainable economic development of the province”. In other words, the province needs a new growth model based on which it can start the next phase of economic development.

To make this happen, the provincial government intends to “relocate all labour-intensive industries to other places”. “This will provide space for knowledge-based industries,” Lin says. The catch-line here is: the government intends to attract hi-tech industries and turn the province into a centre for innovation.

This, no doubt, is an ambitious plan as it requires huge investments and a highly skilled work force. But the early works going on in many cities in the province show that transformation envisioned by the government is already taking shape.

For instance, in Zhuhai, where the yacht-building company is located, an aviation park has been established to attract aircraft manufacturing companies. The park also aims to be one of the largest aircraft maintenance bases in Asia Pacific and provide a platform to hold biggest aviation exhibitions in the world.

Nearby, there’s a shipbuilding company, a deepwater marine engineering equipment manufacturing base and a hi-tech zone, which not only houses software developers but also renowned universities and is a hub for research and development activities.

A little further, a new town, called Henqin New Area, is being created, which will turn into a regional business service base with clean-tech clusters of ultra-modern convention and exhibition facilities and upscale hotels. This place—located just a stone’s throw away from Macau and several kilometres from Hong Kong—wants to capitalise on its proximity to these bustling cities and boost MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) related tourism activities.

Then there is Guangzhou Development Zone, which has so far attracted 3,700 high-tech enterprises and 285 research and development institutions. And in Foshan, another city in Guangdong province, an industrial design city has recently been set up where more than 60 design companies are already engaged in the creative work of designing home and electronic appliances, vehicles, multi-storied buildings, furniture, communication terminal, and medical and industrial equipment.

Clearly, the global economic recession has not dampened the ambitions of the government. In fact, it is utilising this period to create a strong base. Side by side, it is also using this time to nurture talents and promote entrepreneurship.

In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, the government has invested 16.5 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) to build a technology industrial park to promote independent innovation and development of high-tech industry. Here, every leading talent can get a fund of 15 million yuan ($2.2 million) under the talent attraction programme.

Now, even small towns, like Guzhen in Zhongshan city, are jumping on the bandwagon of grooming talents by opening incubators and providing seed money equivalent to 20 per cent of the total investment cost to start-up companies. “We also provide subsidy on rents to start-up companies and have invited instructors from Hong Kong to train our students,” Su Enming, mayor of Guzhen town tells AsiaNews.

The Guangdong government believes that all these efforts will work as a catalyst in creating a knowledge-based economy, which relies more on creativeness and innovation rather than the sweat of blue-collar workers.

But the problem, not only in this province but in entire China, is that very few people respect innovations and creations as copycats with prying eyes walk around like predators ready to make an attack on anything new that is launched in the market.

For instance, the Landmark Shopping Centre in Zhuhai is filled with replicas of Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Nike and even the latest models of Blackberries and iPhones. These fake products look so much like the original ones a buyer cannot easily differentiate between the two goods.

Many foreign countries complain that China’s counterfeiting activities cause billions of dollars in losses to their businesses. And the US Trade Representative Office has listed China as one of the worst global intellectual property rights violators.

But only in October, the Chinese government said it will launch a six-month-long national campaign to crackdown on copyright violations, which will target everything from fake high-tech goods to other consumer items.

What will be the outcome of the six-month-long campaign is still unknown but any delay in nabbing the violators may one day backfire, as China itself is now the fourth largest country to apply for patents after the US, Japan, Germany and South Korea.

The delay may also stifle domestic innovation and discourage companies like Sunbird Yacht Company, which has registered 25 patents. This will ultimately derail the government’s plan of creating a knowledge-based economy.Published in Nov 5-18 edition of AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | November 5, 2010

Guangzhou Is Ready

The Chinese city of Guangzhou is all set to host the 16th Asian Games
Rupak D. Sharma in Guangzhou
Asia News Network 
Stadiums. Check. Athletes’ Village. Check. Security. Check.

With everything set in place, China is ready to host another mega sporting event after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The 16th Asian Games, which will begin on November 12 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, will provide the country another opportunity to exhibit its wealth and achievements. And the government is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the smooth execution of the event.

Guangzhou, one of the prosperous cities in China, had started making preparations for this sporting gala soon after winning the bid for the Games six years ago. In this period of time, it has spent over 100 billion yuan (US$14.9 billion) to build world-class stadiums or renovate the old ones, beef up security and partially clean up its polluted environment.

The arrangements made so far give assurance that Guangzhou will not repeat the mistakes made by New Delhi, which nearly bungled the Commonwealth Games in October.

The Indian capital was in a mess even weeks prior to the beginning of the Commonwealth Games. At Connaught Place, the commercial district of New Delhi, and many other parts of the city, heaps of mud, sand and cement laid strewn, which left one wondering whether India’s capital was a big construction site or a venue for one of the biggest sporting events in years.

Then there was a shooting incident days before the beginning of the Games in which two Taiwanese television cameramen were injured. A major disappointment for the government at that time was the incomplete work at the stadiums and athletes’ village over which many players threatened to boycott the event.

Guangzhou, on the other hand, has said all its 70 stadiums and gymnasiums are ready for use and have been handed over to the organising committee. The construction works at the athletes’ village, where the participants of the event will stay, are also complete.

“We have also held 47 test events in the sporting facilities since August 2009 and all the problems and issues have been dealt with,” Sun Xiuqing, aka Michael Sun, external relations director of Guangzhou Asian Games Organising Committee told an Asian media delegation that recently visited the city.

A visit to the city also shows that it is well prepared to host the grand sporting event. Roads have been widened and the Pearl River has been cleaned up. Security cameras can be spotted throughout the city and the number of checkpoints has also been increased. The city has also invested a significant amount on extending its high-speed railway network for the convenience of people, who will be visiting the city during the Games.

The Guangzhou government has said the works it has conducted in the name of the Asian Games is actually facilitating urban development which will benefit the city in the long run.

For instance, the government has spent quite some amount on industrial waste water treatment. “This is crucial for the residents and they will be able to reap benefits for it even after completion of the Games,” Sun said. Likewise, huge chunks of money have also been poured into building bridges, sewage treatment, subway extension and environmental protection.

“That’s how our investment on the Games crossed 100 billion yuan,” Sun said, trying to silence the critics who have been claiming the government is overspending on projects related to the Asian Games. “This money would have been spent (on these projects) even without the Games.”

According to Sun, only 6 billion yuan ($899 million) has been spent on the construction of sporting facilities and another 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) has piled up as operating expenses. The government is confident it will be able to raise this amount through sales of tickets and broadcasting rights, among others. Sun said critics should also consider that “the places where the facilities have been built will have high market value”, which will indirectly benefit the residents.

But above everything, it is the spotlight that the city will get which will matter the most in the long run. This will give Guangzhou—which is only known as an international labour-intensive manufacturing base—an opportunity to show the work what it is doing to attract high-tech industries. The Games will also promote surrounding cities like Zhuhai and Foshan, which have ample tourism spots but are largely unknown to the outside world.

Now, the only thing that might draw criticism is the quality of the city’s air. Even after doing quite some work, the haze has not stopped covering the sky of the city, although the government claims that the air quality in the Pearl River Delta has improved drastically in the first nine months of this year. The city does not want to draw negative publicity due to this weakness like Beijing did during the Olympic Games in 2008.

But the government believes that relocation or the complete shutdown of more than 30 chemical plants will make some contribution in its effort to clean the air. The government has also ordered owners of large vehicles to use the highest-octane gasoline to reduce emissions and the city’s environmental protection bureau has set up 29 checkpoints to monitor vehicle emissions.

“The aim of the Games is also to promote a healthy and civilised lifestyle with bluer sky, cleaner water, smoother traffic and more beautiful buildings,” the organising committee has said. “We are serious about it.”Published in Nov 5-18 edition of AsiaNews

Guangzhou Asian Games key facts:

– The Games will draw 10,156 athletes from 45 Asian countries and region
– The athletes will compete in 476 events under 42 different sports categories
– The Games is the largest ever in terms of the number of participants and the number of sports categories
– 4 new sports categories—dance sports, dragon boating, roller sports and cricket—have been added for the first time to the Games
– For the first time, the Games will also see women competing in sports such as boxing, kabaddi, water polo and cricket, among others

Posted by: rupaksharma | August 31, 2010

The new frontiers

India’s BPO companies are gradually moving toward smaller cities and less developed areas adjoining these cities

Rupak D. Sharma in New Delhi
Asia News Network

In September 2009, Tata Power Company Limited opened its first rural business process outsourcing (BPO) unit at Khopoli, about 80km south of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

At that time, the call centre established by India’s largest private integrated power company was viewed by many as a test subject, with shutters ready to be pulled down in case the business went awry. One year down the line, the unit has outwitted its critics.

Today, it employs 192 people, up 300 per cent from a year ago. And most of the staff in the company are local unemployed youths, who would have migrated to urban centres if the unit had not been set up.

Tata Power calls this an example of how companies in corporate India can help empower people in rural areas and create self-sustained communities. It is now planning to increase the number of employees in its Khopoli centre to 360 soon, while its parent company, Tata Group, is mulling over recruiting 5,000 people in rural BPO units over the next few years.

Lately, smaller cities in India or villages adjoined to these smaller cities are emerging as lucrative destinations for IT and BPO firms. Locations such as Jaipur, Chandigarh, Mysore and Nagpur are being increasingly leveraged by companies to expand their offshore operations, the latest report of Everest Group on global sourcing said.

For instance, Deutsche Bank and Genpact, India’s oldest BPO firm, have set up their branches in Jaipur. Dell and EDS-Mphasis have also opened units in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, respectively. And some BPO firms like Xchanging and Hinduja Global Solutions have gone even further to places like Shimoga in Karnataka state and Durgapur in West Bengal, slowly changing the face of rural areas.

Lower operating cost is one of the primary reasons why companies are setting up shops in places far away from big cities. In urban centres like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, real estate prices have skyrocketed. People in big cities also expect higher salaries, whereas companies in rural areas can hire a person for US$100 a month for an eight-hour shift—almost half of what BPO units in cities pay to an employee. In total, companies can save 40 to 60 per cent on the operating cost if they open BPO units in rural areas.

Another reason why service providers are moving to hinterlands is incentives given by state governments such as tax holidays and subsidies to promote investment in rural areas. Karnataka government, for instance, provides 10,000 rupees  ($214) per candidate to each company that sets up the BPO centre in rural parts of the state. On top of that the companies also get a discount of 50 per cent on Internet bills. In August, Tamil Nadu government also announced that it would provide a capital subsidy of up to 300,000 rupees ($6,430) and a training subsidy of 1,500 rupees ($32) per month for each person to BPO companies that wish to start up business in the state’s rural areas. Now, many other states are planning to emulate these policies to create jobs in rural areas.

The attraction of incentives and low operating cost has led to opening of 50 BPO units in rural areas so far, according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies. These units employ about 5,000 people mostly to operate call centres and help desks, and perform data processing and other back office tasks for international as well as domestic companies. Thanks to these efforts, around 30 million rupees ($643,000) a year is flowing into rural areas. Estimates show the number of these centres will increase to 1,000 by 2015, creating jobs for around 150,000 people.

Studies have shown that rural BPO centres, apart from creating employment opportunities for local youths, are also empowering women. For instance, a BPO company called HarVa, which runs three units in conservative Haryana, is already seeing how the lure for money is propelling male-dominated society to unclip women’s wings and let them to do outside work to supplement family income. It is the same in a village called Bagar in Rajasthan state, where women are expected to stay at home and do household chores. But with the establishment of an all-women BPO centre by Source for Change—an initiative of the Mumbai-based Piramal Foundation—the thinking of people have changed.

But all this doesn’t mean setting up BPO centers in rural areas is an easy task. One of the biggest challenges in setting up shop in the hinterlands is infrastructure. Most of India’s rural areas face power outages and many places do not even have electricity supply. It is also not possible to run big units that can seat 500 to 1,500 employees at one time because of lack of quality human resources. At most only 100-150 people can work in one shift.

But many believe the industry will overcome these problems gradually. The country’s now $12-billion BPO industry faced similar challenges between 1998 and 2001, when it was trying to prove that outsourcing work could be done in India. It took the industry few more years to get high-end work. It is said rural BPOs, too, will overcome the problems it is now facing.Published in Aug 27-Sept 9 edition of AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | August 14, 2010

The ‘new’ New Delhi

India’s capital is singing a totally different tune

Rupak D. Sharma in New Delhi
Asia News Network

A barrage of heat hit me as I came out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. The temperature was around 42 degrees Celcius.

Wiping the beads of sweat that had formed on my forehead, I looked around. I was expecting some change as I arrived in the Indian capital after almost 13 years.

At first sight, everything looked the same: The country’s trademark Ambassador taxis hadn’t become obsolete yet; the paintings were coming off the walls and looked dirty as in the past; and potholes, as always, had turned into puddles, where cigarette butts were floating.

One thing that I didn’t notice though was groups of people swarming all over me–grabbing my luggage and playing tug-of-war with my body.

I always loathed these people who were there to rip you off in the name of helping you carry luggage and find a taxi or a hotel. Thank god, these ‘airport nightmares’ have become history, at least at the airport.

Feeling much relieved, I went to a kiosk nearby to book a pre-paid taxi.

“How much for Jangpura Extension,” I asked.

“350 rupees (US$7.5),” the man inside replied and gave me a receipt.

The taxi waiting for me was an old, beat-up Maruti van. The first thing that I checked soon after boarding the vehicle was air conditioner as sweat was flowing down my chest and back like water. But as I had expected there was none. In fact, the dashboard of the vehicle didn’t have anything—not even a radio–except for the steering wheel.

“Hey, how do you survive this blistering heat,” I asked the driver preparing myself for a “roasting” trip in that metal box.

“Just like this. We’re used to it,” he replied switching on the ignition.

“Wow,” was all I could say.

As the vehilce moved, I started looking outside the window. Construction work was going on all over.

“Looks like lots of work is going on around here,” I said to keep the conversation going.

“Yes and it’s the same all over Delhi,” he said, with eyes fixed on the road.

Far off in one corner, I noticed a long structure.

“Is that the new terminal?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

That was Terminal 3 of New Delhi’s international airport, which was built at a cost of $2 billion. Opening of this new terminal has turned the city’s airport into one of the six largest in the world.

Now, that was a change!

More changes were visible as we drove into the city. The first thing I noticed was the network of flyovers that were intersecting almost everywhere. There were none of these when I was here 13 years ago. And these roads were filled with cars, cars and more cars.

So where did all the motorcycles go?

I was curious as I was used to seeing the two-wheelers piling up on the streets whenever the traffic lights turned red. I later came to know that many of the people of New Delhi that I was talking about had upgraded to four-wheelers—or cars—in all these years.

“These days, people immediately purchase cars once they save some money,” professor N Sridharan of School of Planning and Architecture told me. It has become Delhiites’ number one priority, he said.

It is said once Tata makes its world’s cheapest car ($2,500), Nano, widely available to the public this September, more people riding motorbikes will shift gears to automobile.

To cater to this segment another carmaker Rennault-Nissan recently forged partnership with Bajaj to produce ultra low-cost cars. Looks like finding motorcycles on the streets of New Delhi will be even more difficult in the next five to 10 years time.

Just like cars, home demand is also increasing in New Delhi. The main reason for this is splitting up of joint families into nuclear.

Earlier, Indians preferred to live in bungalows with mum, dad, grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts and their children and grandchildren crammed up in a limited space. But in a rapidly changing society, more and more people are seeking personal space. The only way to get this freedom is moving to a new house or apartment.

It is said high-rise buildings with 1,500 units of apartments, or 3.41 million square feet of space, will be added in Delhi by the end of 2011. But these units will bring in only 10-15 per cent of the supply into New Delhi’s residential market. So you can imagine the number of housing projects that the Indian capital will see in the next few years.

One may wonder how people can afford to buy cars and apartments in a country, where the annual per capita income is about $1,000 and where around 800 million people live on less than $2 a day. But this is New Delhi which is filled with nouveau riche and young professionals who earn more in a couple of years than what their parents did in their entire lifetime.

Karishma Arora, an in-flight manager in Indigo budget airlines, told me her income has risen from 10,500 rupees ($223 as per current exchange rate) to 40,000 rupees ($852) in the last three and half years–that’s an increment of 280 per cent.

The 25-year-old still doesn’t own a car but she does not take buses either like before when she had just arrived from her hometown in Rajasthan state. “I also visit a beauty parlor at least twice a month which I hardly used to in the past,” she said. And she has also developed a habit of eating outside every now and then whenever she is free.

People like Arora are also generally known for their conspicuous consumption. They do not mind blowing away close to 200 rupees ($4) on every 330ml bottle of beer at upscale bars like Café Morrison, Moet’s or Hard Rock. They also like to hang around coffee houses like Café Coffee Day or Mocha where each cup of cappuccino or mocha costs nearly 100 rupees ($2). And they go for shopping at swanky places like Select City Walk, Vasant Vihar and Connaught Place which have an array of branded goods on display.

“These people are not as frugal as their parents,” professor Sridharan said. This is why they are “dictating the consumption and lifestyle pattern in metropolitan cities (like New Delhi)”. “They are the creators of demand for everything from white goods and automobile to residential complexes and even bigger roads,” he said.

The professor’s comments left me wondering what surprises would I come across if I visit the city in, say, another 10 years.Published in July30-Aug12 issue of AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | August 13, 2010

The Face Of War

Rupak D. Sharma in Kabul
Asia News Network

A group of children gathers around the car soon after it comes to a halt in the outskirts of the Afghani capital Kabul. Some make efforts to climb on to the hood. A few others knock on the fully shut windows making gestures as if to inquire about the purpose of the visit.

As the car door opens, a young boy with sunken cheeks asks: “Are you giving us some money?” He appears interested in asking some more questions but is hustled back by an elder, perhaps his father.

This is a refugee camp in Char Rahi Qanbar in the west of Kabul. Here, the sight of car and a few relatively well-dressed people light a flame of hope in children. They begin to think these people will do something to give a little tweak to their lives filled with poverty and deprivation.

“Please don’t mind. They’re just kids,” Saiful Khan, a refugee living in the camp, says through a translator.  He then pauses. After ruminating in silence for a while he tells AsiaNews: “But the fact is we all hope somebody will come and lift us from the mess we are living in.”

The refugee camp where Khan lives is home to around 880 families. All of these people had fled their hometowns for fear of getting killed  in the war between Taliban insurgents and Western forces. They now live in shoddy houses made of mud. These so-called houses provide a roof over their heads but even the roofs made of plastic look tattered and a strong gush of wind can blow them off anytime.

A little further, a few women scrub their dirty dishes and clothes in a pool of water that looks dirty as well. After seeing the strangers, they duck their heads, already half hidden in their head scarves, and disappear into shelters nearby, revealing the problem of lack of water supply in the area. It gradually becomes apparent that the place also has no toilets. And it also lacks electricity supply.

“You see how we are living,” Khan’s words trail off in a deepened despair.

“Nobody supports us here—neither the government nor NGOs or INGOs,” his voice hardens. “Had some businessmen not provided us food material every now and then, we don’t know how we could have survived.”

Khan, who arrived here with his wife and five children last year, is a native of a town called Sangin in Helmand province. It is one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan and is one of the strongholds of the Taliban insurgents.

But this place in the southwestern part of the country is also a major hub for opium trade and most of the people there grow poppy for a living. So it is not surprising to know that Khan also did the same for a living before moving to Kabul.

“It was an easy job,” he says. All  he had to do was look after poppy plants (from which drugs like opium and heroin are produced) grown on a small plot given to him by his landlord.

He used to get half of the harvest. “That used to be around three and a half kilograms of opium a year, from which I used to earn 80,000 Afghani (US$1,700),” he says, without a hint of remorse for earning money by selling drugs.

But everything changed as the war between the Taliban and Western forces intensified.

The war began in 2001 following fatal attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US on September 11. At that time the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan and the US had asked the group to hand over Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks and was taking refuge in the country. But the Taliban refused. And in October the US led a campaign and chased the group away from major cities in the country.

But the offensives launched then did not completely wipe the group out. Over the years, they have regrouped creating strongholds in places like Helmand and Kandahar. Now, the group is using these places as bases to chart out plans and launch deadly attacks challenging the legitimacy of foreign troops fighting in the country, the country’s new constitution and the government installed by Western countries after its fall in 2001.

In places where the Talibans are strong, the sound of gunfire fills the air most of the time. Roadside bombings are also a common sight in those areas. So are the sights of dead bodies lying in the midst of rubbles, people dabbing the eyes brimmed with tears and grieving families.

“There your houses can be bombed any time and you can get killed anytime,” Khan says. “People live on the edge not knowing whether they’d be able to see their family members the next day.”

Khan is also one of the many people who lost his house in the bombings. “Luckily, me and my family survived,” he says.

After that he and his family started moving from one place to the other every now and then to avoid getting killed in crossfire or operations launched by foreign troops. This way, he did manage to save his and his family’s lives but couldn’t stay away from the radars of both the groups. And so, one day as Khan had expected, both sides approached him asking for his cooperation. That was when he found himself trapped.

“I didn’t want to take sides but having lived in the area I had to talk to both the Talibans and the Western troops,” he says.  “But when I was seen talking to the Talibans, the Western troops would take me for questioning. And if I was seen talking to the foreign armies, I would be quizzed by the Taliban.

“I couldn’t even grow beard or cut it off as long beard made me a Taliban supporter in the eyes of Western forces and a clean-shaven face would make me a target of the Taliban.”

So that was when he decided to escape from the place where he was born. Now, in Kabul, he earns a living by doing menial labour jobs. “I earn around 250-300 Afghani (US$5-6) per day,” he says. “But the income is not stable.”

Hundreds of people like Khan, who live in the refugee camp here, have walked an endless labyrinth of problems. They have the same stories to tell that beg sympathy. But one cannot overlook their ruthless acts either.

In 2008, refugees here abducted a female Canadian journalist. She was later flown to some far-off province controlled by the Taliban and released after four weeks. This incident sparked rumours that most of the refugees in the camp are in touch with the Taliban fighters and sympathise them. Many in Kabul believe in these rumours because most of the refugees here come from Helmand province, where many villagers have turned into insurgents. They believe the refugees could be relatives or friends of the insurgents.

These claims cannot be verified but judging by the way Khan calls the Western troops “outsiders” and the Talibans “our own people”, it appears, at least, he does empathise with the insurgents.

“What’s wrong with that,” he says. “The Talibans are Afghanis. Everyone knows that. Whereas, the Western soldiers are not from our country. And they should not stay here.”

This kind of reaction—in support of the insurgents who have ruthlessly killed and maimed uncountable number of innocents—may astonish many, but a recent survey by an international think-tank, International Council on Security and Development, shows that many people in Afghanistan share Khan’s view these days.

The study conducted in southern Afghanistan shows more than two-thirds of people feel the Western-led military operations are “bad for the country” and “do not protect the local population”. Almost two-thirds also believe the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Taliban should join the government.

These reactions—after spending nine years and more than $30 billion fighting the Talibans—are prompting many to ask was the war worth it? Can the conflict be solved by continuing to fight with the Talibans?

Even Amercian commanders agree war cannot solve Afghanistan’s problem. They say a political settlement is required to end the war. To find a political solution, Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself is exploring ways to strike a deal with Taliban leaders. But again this is a dicey issue as the country’s minority communities, which comprise 40 per cent of the population, are planning to stand up against any plans to bring the Taliban into the government.

“We will go to civil war if he (Karzai) brings in the Taliban,” warns Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament.

Afghanistan’s minority communities—which include ethnic groups like Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara—do not want the return of the Talibans because of the atrocities the group had committed during its rule till 2001.

During that time, many of these minority communities—also known as non-Pashtuns—were subjected to human rights violations, including mass murders. So they believe once the Talibans are allowed to share power, they will introduce draconian laws in the name of protecting Islam. This means women and girls will  once again be barred from attending schools or working outside. Men will have to grow beard. And entertainment, including television, will be banned.

Anyone who fails to abide by their fanatic rules may be killed or their body parts— like arms, ears and nose— mutilated. This is what they did during their rule and many believe they will do the same once they come to power.

Considering these circumstances, it would be suicidal to bring the Talibans into mainstream politics. But if they renounce violence, end their support to people like Osama bin Laden and uphold the Afghan constitution, many of their opponents may consider having a truce with them. In other words, the Talibans will have to be brought down to their knees. However, considering the lawlessness in the country, weak central as well as local governments and their popularity among segments of the  population, this is not likely to happen.

Nine years of engagement by the international community—apart from dismantling the insurgents—was also supposed to improve governance and law and order situation in the country. But unfortunately it did not happen. In many places in Afghanistan, the local governments are still very weak or are puppets of one or the other group. There is infighting between many communities, which is paving way for the Taliban to emerge even stronger. Warlords are still powerful in many areas and in several places even the Western troops protect them to get an edge in their fight against the extremists. And there are still people at central and local levels who exercise patronage preventing creation of a merit-based society.

“The country is in a total mess,” political analyst Akmal Bawi tells AsiaNews. “International community has spent millions of dollars just to set up an inefficient and corrupt system. It should change its mindset if it truly wants to win the war.”

Elections were supposed to strengthen decmocracy and bring an end to many of these problems but “elections in Afghanistan are only for the sake of name”.

Akmal calls last year’s presidential election a joke as “everyone knows Karzai had won it through vote rigging”. In some provinces, during last year’s polls many more votes were counted than were cast and in many places, entire booths were held. After heavy international condemnation, a second round run-off election between Karzai and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah was announced. But Abdullah backed out after his demands for changes in the electoral commission was not fulfilled.

Afghanistan is having another election on September 18. The country’s capital Kabul now is filled with huge posters of candidates participating in the parliamentary polls.

Around 2,500 candidates, including 406 women, are taking part in it. But many fear, that like last year’s presidential polls, these elections would not be free, fair and transparent.

“One reason is deteriorating security situation,” says Akmal. The past two months have been the worst for Western forces fighting the nine-year-long war, with death toll topping 188. This is a sign that insurgents are carrying out increasingly dangerous attacks around the country. So it is likely that many voters will refrain from casting votes due to fear of backlash from the Taliban. And in many places, observers, campaign representatives or even police or army may not be able to visit the polling centres, meaning many of these places will be under the control of the Talibans.

During last year’s presidential election, there were 1,500 such polling centres which were controlled by the Taliban that no one from the election commission, army or police could visit. Nobody visited these centres. But when the results were out, it showed hundreds of votes had been cast.

“We believe the same thing will happen again,” Akmal says. “This means many of those who win the elections will not feel that they are accountable to the people.”Published in AsiaNews Aug 13-26 edition

Posted by: rupaksharma | July 2, 2010

Caught in the web

Rupak D. Sharma in Bangkok
Asia News Network
Publication Date : 02-07-2010
The line between the virtual and real world is getting blurred for many youths

He was 27 and single then, yet was not desperate to get into a relationship. Even so, he stumbled upon a girl and fell in love with her at first sight.

After he started dating the ‘doe-eyed beauty’, he grew even more fond of her as she talked to him whenever he wanted and went out with him to places as far as Guam without complaining. Finally, in November last year, the two decided to get hitched.

But after the wedding ceremony— which was aired live by a video-sharing website—people started calling him an obsessive nerd, for his doe-eyed super sexy was a character in the Nintendo DS videogame called ‘Love Plus’.

Yes, this guy from Japan—who only wanted to be known as ‘Sal 9000’—had actually married a video game character called ‘Nene Anegasaki’ in front of a real audience and a priest in Tokyo.

By now you may have also started assuming him to be insane, but for Sal it was a feat.

“I feel like I’ve been able to achieve a major milestone in my life,” he wrote in a letter to after the wedding, trying to explain tying the knot was the only way to show his deep love and affection for his “dream girl”.

He also sounded sure that any “misgivings” about the couple would be resolved “as long as the two of us can go on to create a happy household”.

People like Sal represent today’s Web-savvy youngsters who are more accustomed to avatars than human beings made of flesh and blood. This group of people fancy customising video game appearances from superhumans to nasty villains or even animals, and love slaying demons and wandering around mystical lands of the fantasy world. Because of the fun and thrill associated with the games, many even don’t hesitate to say the virtual world is in fact their real world.

This kind of obsession to the fantasy world is turning many into video game addicts like 41-year-old Kim Jae-beom and his 25-year-old wife Kim Yun-jeong.

The South Korean duo was so immersed in online role-playing games, they’d leave home in the evening for the Internet cafe and return only in the morning. In the online world, they’d tread the unknown paths each holding the hand of their own virtual daughter.

But in the real world their real daughter was suffering from malnutrition as they had very little time to feed her properly. The three-month-old girl—who had virtually turned into a skeleton—died on September 24 last year. They came to know about it upon returning home from their regular gaming session early in the morning.

On May 28 this year, the husband was sentenced to two years in prison, while the wife was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence because of her pregnancy.

You can call it ‘technology curse’ as people like Jae-beom and Yun-jeong probably wouldn’t have turned into compulsive video game players had South Korea’s broadband penetration rate remained low.

Almost 90 per cent of the homes in the world’s most technologically wired nation are connected to high-speed communication network. In other words, almost every household with school-going children has a computer. So children get acquainted with Internet and Internet games from the time they start attending primary school. And as they grow up, the Internet and the games they play on it become integral parts of their lives. No wonder almost 2 million people out of the nation’s population of 49 million and 12.8 per cent of teenagers are addicted to games.

This ‘technology curse’ is infecting other Asian countries as well, as rising incomes are spurring growth in the IT sector. In China, at least 33 million Internet users are classified as addicted and 50 per cent of youngsters who log into the Internet play games. In Japan, there are reports about people quitting their jobs and peeing into plastic bottles just to concentrate on their games. And in Viet Nam, 16-year-old Phan Quoc Thai, stabbed his grandfather to death on April 20 after the 64-year-old man refused to give him money to play online games.

Surveys have shown that almost two-thirds of young Internet addicts are hooked to massive multiplayer online role-playing games. In these games, players create their own avatars and form groups to battle with each other. These fights can go on for days and some players even sit in front of the computer round the clock—in many cases skipping meals—to win the game or get an edge over the opponent.

To control the menace, many governments have even opened rehabilitation centres for Internet addicts. South Korea took the lead in this endeavour in Asia. China has also established several of these detox centres for Internet addicts. But after a Net-addicted teenager was allegedly beaten to death by counsellors at an illegal rehabilitation centre in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region last year, questions are being raised on the measures these centres are taking to treat people.

To tighten the bolt, the Chinese government is now introducing a new regulation. Under this law, all Web users, beginning August 1, will have to register their names before playing games online. Viet Nam is also mulling over introducing a similar regulation, under which online game players will not only have to register each time they sit down to play the games but will be prohibited from playing for more than three hours per session.

But many players in both China and Viet Nam already said the new regulation would not affect them, and others, in a survey conducted earlier, warned to turn to smoking, drinking or even consuming drugs if their right to play video games is snatched away.

Kourosh Dini, writes in his book Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents: “When beginning to address (video game) addiction, we need to focus on what is gained and then find ways to provide these gains elsewhere, if such a change is deemed necessary. Growth of sorts does occur within video games through the strong learning mechanism of play. The types of growth require exploration, as they are neither all good nor all bad.

“However, which games are good for you or your child is an individual matter just as the choice of a book or movie is a matter of personal taste.”Published in AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | June 21, 2010

A new wave

Rupak D Sharma in Bangkok
Asia News Network
Publication Date : 21-06-2010

A wave of protests in China’s major industrial hubs has given much-needed boost to migrant workers’ wages

At an Asean business leaders’ conference in Bangkok last year, a CEO of a Thai firm, with an auto parts manufacturing unit in China, was full of praise for Chinese authorities that dealt with labour-related disputes.

“All I need to do is give them a call,” the Malaysian based in Thailand bragged putting a grin on his face. “And the workers shouting at the gates immediately get back to work.”

Of course, the CEO had to pamper the officials and shower them with ‘gifts’ at times, but as long as the production line was fully functioning, giving away small tokens of appreciation was not a big deal to him.

“This is one thing I love about China,” he said.

Employers like the Malaysian CEO have long been taking undue advantage of blue-collar migrant workers in China, which manufactures most of the goods available in the world today. In most of the cases, they make these labourers work for long hours on low wages and without giving them overtime payments.

In central China, for instance, factory workers are only paid between 1,000 yuan (US$146) and 1,500 yuan ($219) a month. But they have to work for at least 60 hours a week, a latest report by Hunan provincial bureau of commerce said. “These workers get very little rest and are generally not satisfied with their jobs.”

When these issues about exploitations are reported, the concerned agencies often side with the employers, becoming a part of the problem rather than solving the problem. This has led to erosion of public trust in government agencies, the report said.

Tired of interminable mistreatment, nearly 2,000 workers at Honda’s joint venture parts maker, Guangqi Honda Automobile Co., walked out of the factory last month demanding pay increase. Clad in white uniforms, and white and red caps, they insisted their monthly salary be raised to between 2,000 yuan ($292) and 2,500 yuan ($365) from 1,500 yuan, in what is said to be one of the biggest industrial actions ever reported in China.

Later, the local government tried to intervene by sending members of the Chinese Communist Party-controlled union to the factory. But after the union showed sympathy towards the management, “about 30 employees fought with the officials, leaving some people hospitalised”, China Daily quoted the factory union as saying.

This was a bizarre incident in Communist China where workers are considered more “disciplined” than in other countries. They also do not have the habit of getting into ‘unnecessary trouble’ for fears of becoming a target of the state, which does not tolerate industrial unrests that threaten the country’s export-dependent economy. But the migrant workers of the new generation are a totally different breed.

These workers—who haven’t faced the hardships like their parents—are not as timid as their predecessors in proclaiming what they want. They are also much more aware of “how to use their rights to pursue higher wages and better working conditions”, China Daily quoted Lee Chang-hee, a senior specialist on industrial relations and social dialogue for the International Labour Office in China. And a significant chunk certainly does not believe in eking out a living by letting others abuse them.

In the case of protests at Honda’s plant in Foshan, the young workers also showed prudence in organising protests in a manner that would not make anyone a prey of management’s actions.

What they did was use their mobile phones to send text messages to colleagues and update them on their forthcoming moves. According to a Hong Kong magazine, the code word they used was “factory stroll”.

This way they didn’t grab the management’s attention as they never had to meet in large groups. And almost three weeks later they were given a 24 per cent pay hike.

Now, in what appears to be copycat moves, thousands of workers in other factories are also downing tools and gathering at the factory gates demanding pay hikes. In the end of May, about 1,000 workers at Hyundai’s auto parts factory staged a two-day strike demanding wage increases. The protests came to an end only after the management offered an initial 15-per-cent pay hike followed by another 10 per cent in July.

Early this month in southern China, employees of Merry Electronics and Foshan Fengfu Autoparts also walked out of the factory with the same demands. State media reported that Merry will now raise wages by 16 per cent to 1,050 yuan ($153) a month. Similar protests and subsequent pay hikes were reported in several factories in China.

As these emboldened migrant workers are showing their might, many provinces and regions have started announcing raise in minimum wage levels. Shenzhen, a southern manufacturing hub, for instance, plans to raise the minimum wage by an average of 15.8 per cent from July.

Central China’s Hunan province also plans to raise minimum monthly wage from 500 yuan-600 yuan ($73-$87) starting July 1. And Beijing is also following the suit by increasing the minimum monthly wage from 800 yuan-960 yuan ($117-$140) beginning next month.

While the changes taking place in the world’s factory are making investors jittery, others feel some justice is being done to the poor migrant workers who were getting far less pay than their predecessors considering the change in value of money over the years.

These incidents, according to this school of thought, will pave way for China to join the league of countries like the US, Japan and others in Europe where the wave of demands for pay hikes had swept decades ago.

It looks like it’s now the time of migrant workers to taste the fruits of the country’s stunning growth.With reports from China Daily and The Straits Times (Published in AsiaNews)

Posted by: rupaksharma | June 7, 2010

Building world-class universities

Rupak D Sharma in Bangkok
Asia News Network
Publication Date : 07-06-2010

Asia, the world’s factory for manufactured goods, is now striving to churn out some of the best brains in the world

Last October, nine prestigious Chinese universities created a buzz in the international education sector when they announced formation of an alliance called C9.

The establishment of the group—regarded as the Chinese version of the Ivy League, an alliance of eight oldest and finest institutions of higher learning in the US including Harvard and Yale—was a subtle way of saying the country recognises the role of quality university education in economic development and wants to create some of the finest post-secondary educational institutions in the world.

The world’s largest factory of manufactured goods has been striving to create the world’s finest universities for the last several years. To churn out some of the best brains in the world, it has been investing around 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on university education per year—while the US and the UK are cutting down on education and research budgets.

In the last decade alone, it has invested more than US$10 billion on tertiary education, building state-of-the-art research laboratories and embracing technologies similar to that in the West. Since then it has also more than doubled the number of higher education institutions from 1,022 to 2,263.

“The strategy is to surround their star faculties with the brightest students, give them academic leeway, and provide competitive salaries and additional non-salary incentives,” said a recent World Bank report titled ‘World-class Universities’.

Yet these efforts have not been able to bring about desired changes. This was reflected in the recent rankings of Asia’s top universities, where mainland Chinese institutions were not able to secure top 10 positions. The rankings published by UK education researcher Quacquarelli Symonds showed that Peking University had fallen to 12th place from the previous 10th, while Tsinghua slipped from 15th to 16th position.

This, experts say, is because of the Chinese government’s way of running universities like state departments—mired with suffocating bureaucracy and insufficient autonomy.

But the recent formation of alliance between nine universities is expected to bring changes, at least in some of the best institutions in China, as it aspires for inter-campus integration and resource-sharing, which will ultimately broaden the horizon of universities, a China Daily editorial said. The alliance will also allow students to take full advantage of the strengths of nine schools—which was impossible earlier—brightening the prospects of students of the member schools, the editorial added.

“In 25 years, only a generation’s time, these universities could rival the Ivy League,” professor Richard Levin, president of Yale University, declared earlier this year. How the alliance works that out should be exemplary for other schools and could be emulated by other universities in the country, China Daily said.

The significance of higher education is increasing in Asia’s developing countries as they have realised that knowledge-based society is the driving force in rapidly changing globalised world. These countries have learnt from the Western experience that sustainable economic growth is only possible through creation of highly skilled work force. They have also realised that in a world that treasures innovation, it is essential to foster creative minds, which is only possible through quality higher education.

Japan and South Korea had realised these facts long time ago and invested heavily in education. That’s why these countries are so successful. Singapore is also not far behind in this game. The country is already a home to some of the best universities in the world, including Asia’s third best, the National University of Singapore (NUS). And with the establishment of new higher education institutions in collaboration with world’s best like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and New York University, the country is emerging as an educational hub not only for Asian students but for students from Western countries as well. Today, the proportion of foreign students at NUS, for instance, is 20 per cent at the undergraduate level and 43 per cent at the graduate level, according to World Bank. The target now is to enroll 150,000 international students in its higher education institutions by 2015, up from 97,000 in 2008.

Other countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand is also aiming to be a higher-education hub for the Greater Mekong Sub-region by 2016, and a hub for Southeast Asia by 2026, while Malaysia is striving to attract students especially from the Gulf countries.

“But developing top universities is a tall order,” professor Levin wrote in a recent article. “World-class universities achieve their status by assembling scholars who are global leaders in their fields. In the sciences, this requires first-class facilities, adequate funding and competitive salaries and benefits.”

China is making substantial investments on all three fronts, according to professor Levin. But another Asian giant India seems to be dithering along the way despite placing education—especially science and technology—high on the agenda decades ago.

Soon after gaining independence from British rule in the late 1940s, India established its first Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT)—based on the MIT model—in 1951. Four more IITs were established in various parts of the country by 1960s and 10 more were added in the last two decades. These institutions churn out one of the best engineers in the world, who are snapped up immediately by reputed global firms like Microsoft, IBM and India’s largest IT services providers like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro.

But these world-class institutions are losing their competitive edge as they are facing shortage of lecturers, said the World Bank report. It is estimated that the IITs are already suffering from a shortage of at least 900 qualified faculty as fewer promising graduates seek an academic career due to low salary level, the report said. And “without the autonomy to raise salaries and offer more competitive employment packages”, these institutions cannot make adequate contribution to intellectual and scientific development.

Besides, India has not been able to make significant progress in other disciplines of education as the government cannot afford to spend more than 0.37 per cent of the GDP on higher education. To fill this gap, the Indian government is now planning to liberalise the education sector and is even talking about allowing 100 per cent foreign direct investment in it.

But “no matter how much money is thrown at the endeavour, instant results are impossible. Achieving the goals of creating a culture of excellence and achieving high-quality outputs take many years and sustained commitment on the part of the entire constituency of the institution, internal and external,” the World Bank report said.

However, one positive aspect is that most experts agree that Asian universities are on the right track. They may not be able to catapult to the world’s top positions overnight. But according to professor Levin: “It may happen faster than ever before.”Published in AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | May 24, 2010

The guardians

Rupak D Sharma in Bangkok
Asia News Network
Publication Date : 24-05-2010

Residents of Kathmandu set an example on May 7 by peacefully compelling the opposition party to call off the nationwide general strike

Recently, one of my friends from Nepal updated his Facebook status with an emotional note: “I live by a simple code—honour your gods and love your women. Nepal is our mother. Fight for her.”

This was right on the day Nepal’s opposition Maoist party had launched an indefinite general strike calling on the prime minister to step down.

Five days later, another Facebook friend pitched her voice: “Painting the city red, blue and white tomorrow @ 9am. Calling k town. C u all there!”

She was referring to a peace rally that the civil society was planning to hold the next day in Kathmandu to protest against the nationwide shutdown which had forced closure of all firms, schools and marketplaces, and crippled public and private transport system.

Soon comments gushed.

One said: “Yeap let’s do it.” Another joined in: “C ya there.” And another rapped: “Be there to support the cause.”

Clearly, these voices were coated with veneer of frustration. They were so tired of being taken for granted they were now willing to stand against the party, which is known for its notorious behaviour of threatening more privileged ones to donate money or breaking people’s legs and arms when disappointed.

But the more remarkable thing was these voices were coming from the people of middle and upper-middle classes of urban Kathmandu.

This is a group of people who are more concerned about their careers or businesses and often share their political views or dissatisfaction with friends or family members in living rooms, or in bars over bottles of beer or glasses of whiskey or wine. Rambling on the streets shouting slogans is a big no-no for them.

But the indefinite general strike was so agonising it worked as a spark to the prairie of discontent that had built up over the years. Next day, on May 7, the fire started. Thousands of residents of Kathmandu poured onto the streets and asked the opposition party to call off its strikes and give the people some respite.

This was the first time the Kathmanduites mustered up the courage to express their solidarity against an irrational practice that has crippled the country for years. And it worked. Within hours the Maoist party cancelled their plans to prolong the shutdown and allowed vehicles to ply on the streets; and schools, shops and offices to reopen.

Then another friend updated his Facebook status: “General strike halted. I guess a moral victory for the peace-loving people. It is a battle won but not the war. Viva Nepal!!!”

Like he said the residents of Kathmandu had only won a single battle. In order to win the war the civil society must exert even greater pressure on all political parties to put an end to the trend of shutting down the country to serve their petty interests.

Over the years, Nepalis have seen countless of these shutdowns. During these strikes vehicles are not allowed to move on the streets. If they are seen they will either be smashed or set on fire. It’s the same with marketplaces and schools. Shops selling goods or schools conducting classes during these times will most likely see a huge downpour of stones and bricks on them. It’s the tourists who face the worst nightmare during these times, as they have to remain confined to their hotel rooms. Because of this many even wrap up their visits hastily giving a blow to the country’s tourism industry.

Rough estimates say that one day of closure costs around 3 billion rupees (US$40 million) to the country’s economy. That’s a huge amount of money considering the Nepalis’ per capita income of less than $500.

Its impacts are even harsher on daily wage earners who end up earning nothing on days when these general strikes are called. And even if they find work they might have to face the wrath of protesters like in the recent case when members of Maoist party assaulted more than two dozens labourers caught working in sand mines.

Then there are vegetable and dairy farmers whose products have to be thrown away due to unavailability of transport services. And while these farmers dump their products to waste, prices of edibles go through the roof in other places, affecting low-income groups. This is exactly what happened during the six-day countrywide general strike called by the opposition Maoist party, when a curfew-like shutdown was clamped allowing general stores to open for only two hours a day in the evening.

Despite knowing its impacts, Nepal’s political parties continue to resort to this fanatical way of voicing their displeasure. Recognising its effectiveness in creating pressure on the concerned body, even smaller groups are now calling these strikes for minor reasons like death of a person in a road accident or to show displeasure over a certain government policy. It is now said that even if a group of five or 10 people utter the word “shutdown” the entire country will grind to a standstill.

The example set by the residents of Kathmandu on May 7 is the only way to deal with this problem for now. If Kathmanduites can prevent the Maoist party from prolonging the strike they can do so when another party announces similar shutdown. And many people, I presume, are ready for this.

This was what another of my Facebook friends had to say regarding standing up against the shutdowns: “(We can do it) again and again and againnnnnnnnnnnnnn………………….” As a Nepali, I think this is a fight worth fighting for to teach reckless and irresponsible political parties some lessons.Published in AsiaNews

Posted by: rupaksharma | May 11, 2010

PAS is not passé

Rupak D. Sharma in Bangkok
Asia News Network
Publication Date : 11-05-2010

Malaysia’s conservative Islamic party has made some discernable shift in its approaches, appearing more liberal than other so-called liberal parties in the country

In 2008, Malaysian lawmaker Khalid Abdul Samad created ripples in the Muslim-majority country when he went to a Catholic church to deliver a speech after being elected as the member of Parliament.

It was an unusual move for two reasons. First, he was a Muslim, and many Muslim politicians avoid taking such steps fearing backlash from Muslim voters.

Secondly, he was a member of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a conservative Muslim party that many non-Muslims consider is bent on turning Malaysia into a repressive Islamic state.

But Khalid defended his move saying his actions do not go against the Koran’s teachings and that he has the support of his party. “Nobody in PAS has ever told me what I’m doing is wrong,” he told The Straits Times.

Over the years, PAS has been taking progressive steps to shore up its tarnished reputation of being a fundamentalist party in Malaysia.

Early this year, when heated debate over whether non-Muslims, especially Christians, can use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to their gods was taking place in the country, the so-called fundamentalist PAS surprised everyone by saying it was fine for Christians and Jews to use the word.

The debate over ‘Allah’ had surfaced after the Malaysian High Court last December ruled that a Christian publication can use ‘Allah’ to refer to God in its Bahasa Malaysia section.

After the verdict was out, the country’s ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno)—which touts itself as being centrist—filed an appeal asking the court to reverse its decision, a move deemed radical by many in Malaysia.

It is said that the country’s largest political party had done so assuming it would receive the backing of the conservative Islamic PAS on the issue. Umno had also assumed once it is able to muster up support of the party, it would create a rift in the opposition coalition of which PAS is a member.

As expected, there were some disputes in the party, with PAS’ deputy spiritual leader Harun Din and party’s deputy leader, Nasharudin Mat Isa, opposing the court ruling. But the minor differences didn’t evolve into a full-blown battle as Umno had wanted after PAS president Hadi Awang intervened and ended the controversy saying “the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims was acceptable as it is consistent with Islamic principles”. Later, even Nasharudin, who had initially opposed the move, said all differences had been set aside, with the declaration of the party’s official stance.

“Such issues are not big enough to divide the party,” Nasharudin told The Straits Times, indicating even those who are more conservative in the party are willing to be flexible for the greater good.

This, however, does not mean the entire ‘Allah’ episode has been an easy sail for PAS. The party is split on the issue even today. But PAS has been using highly respected spiritual leaders like Nik Aziz Nik Nat to give assurances to voters that the “party’s Islamic agenda is still intact” and prevent things from going out of hand.

Political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin of the Universiti Teknologi Mara said: “When the highest authority in PAS decides on something, they follow it. Party discipline within PAS is very high compared to that in other parties.”

This disciplined behaviour of its members is the strength of PAS. And this has paved way for the party’s spiritual leaders like Nik Aziz and other more progressive leaders to lead the party towards a more inclusive approach, The Straits Times said.

Lately, the party has even set aside its aim of establishing an Islamic state. “We have not thrown it out of the window, but it will not be on our manifesto for [the opposition] Pakatan [Rakyat coalition],” PAS chief strategist Dzulkefly Ahmad told The Straits Times. He said there would be an Islamic state only if Malaysians voted for one through the electoral process.

Despite these discernable shifts many in Malaysia still do not trust PAS.

It’s not only non-Muslims but even some Muslims fear the party will curtail basic civil liberties once it is in power. Many even joke the party can go to the extent of banning pork sales in the country in the name of protecting the religion.

“Once it’s in, it can do what it wants, right? That’s the scary thing,” Marina Mahathir, a renowned columnist on Malaysian affairs and daughter of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, recently said in an interview with The Straits Times, referring to PAS.

It would obviously be a tragedy if the party reverts back to its old path. But till that happens whatever negative has been presumed about PAS will just remain hypotheses. In such case, wouldn’t it be practical and logical to give the benefit of the doubt to the party, which is reinventing itself?With reports from The Straits Times(Published in AsiaNews)

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