Monday, 15 December 2014

The Death of the Secular Islamic Polity


The death of secular nationalism across the Islamic world is a painful occurrence. It's not simply the rise of political Islam but also the weakness of secular (left wing?) intellectual thought which adds fuel to the fire. 

Perhaps it was the death of communism which left Muslim nationalists orphans in a world fueled by God-fearing capitalists. Perhaps it was the increasing gap between urbanized, westernized elites and mainstream populations in much of the Muslim world. (It could not have been easy for many Afghanis to accept local women parading around in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul when no more than the eyes of a 'traditional' rural Afghani woman show through her burqa while she is in public!) 

Female Kabul University students walk around campus in 1970s Afghanistan
To many, left wing nationalists such as Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad were bestial tyrants ready to kill their own people given even the most trivial of excuses. Surely, Iraq and Syria were not model societies. However, neither were their counterpart right wing dictatorships found in many Latin American or developing countries. In many instances, capitalist, US supported strongmen were just as lethal to their own people as Soviet supported leaders. 

Nonetheless, the death of Islamic nationalists did not occur with the passing of these two brutal leaders. It is progressively taking place even as these words are being written.   

Of particular note are the two bastions of secularism found on either pole of the Islamic world: Turkey and Indonesia. Arguably, the two nations tasked with 'protecting' the Western and Eastern most physical and ideological borders of the Islamic world. 

Turkey: the birthplace of the first Muslim Republic in the world. A nation which banned headscarves for women and the fez headgear for men; a nation where one can sit in a bar nursing a glass of wine while watching (and listening) to people praying in a nearby mosque. 

After over a decade of rule by an Islamically inspired political party, today's Turkish state is intent on rolling back Ataturk's secular markers from Turkish society. 

A copy of the first Koran printed in the Turkish language after the formation of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923
And so with Indonesia: the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Hitherto a staunchly secular republic, now a fertile playground for the bearded brigade to attack public art and impose 'Islamic' moral standards at will. 

For Islamic modernists, the importance of secular societies lies in the enabling intellectual environment it fosters. A socially liberating ecosystem permits otherwise pious Muslims to question established archaic conventions, many of which are ripe for modernization. 

Islam is a dynamic belief structure. Hobbling it with strictures and 'out of bound' markers is destined to fail. The depth of Islamic intellectual strength will ultimately overcome these obstacles. The only question remains how many more lives must be lost in defeating the die-hard battling Muslim obscurantists.   
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Singapore’s Gillman Barracks: where history meets art


All thriving urban areas require vibrant arts clusters to keep intellectuality creative. Typically, these neighborhoods arise naturally as artists flock towards them. Sometimes, however, a little nudge is required to get the ball rolling. That is the case in Singapore where three government agencies have partnered with the private sector to push for the success of Gillman Barracks (GB) as a contemporary arts cluster.

The entrance to the Gillman Barracks arts cluster. 
The lush green area was the site of a former military camp opened by the colonial authorities in 1936 in preparation for the Pacific War. The fourteen buildings comprising the garrison were taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces in 1971. For some years, Gillman Camp (as it was formerly called) housed the Headquarters, Singapore Combat Engineers (HQ, SCE). In 2010 the site was launched as the Gillman Barracks arts cluster in 2010.

Along with Singapore's iconic Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which opened in 2002, Gillman Barracks adds a new dimension to the country's arts scene. Given the predominance of performing arts at the Esplanade's theater and concert halls, Gillman Barracks filled a void by providing scope for the growth of Singapore's visual arts scene.

A view of the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay along with the Marina Bay area.
Today, the conserved military barracks buildings house seventeen local and international art galleries, restaurants and the Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA).

The CCA brings not only an 'academic flair' to the area but, from time to time, also brings internationally acclaimed exhibitions. Most recently, the Guggenheim's 'No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia' (an exhibition for which I was trained by Guggenheim to act as a docent) visited Singapore courtesy of the CCA.

GB's galleries display a diverse range of art styles and pieces in exhibitions which are continuously refreshed. Along with Singapore centric galleries such as Fost and Yeo Workshop there are regional (e.g. Shanghai Art and Equator Art Projects) and international galleries (e.g. Partners & Mucciaccia and Arndt).

To experience a Singapore far from the shopping at Orchard Road or the bars at Clarke Quay, Gillman Barracks is the perfect venue. Art appreciation, history and greenery all blended into one serving!
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Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. If you wish to arrange customized tours in Singapore, including walking tours of Singapore's arts trails along the Singapore River, Orchard Road, Marina Barrage, etc. please contact Imran at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Singapore’s Mount Faber: a walking trail for riding to Sentosa


Mount Faber, or Telok Blangah Hill, ranks up there with Singapore's tallest peaks. Well, that is if one uses the word 'peak' liberally. After all, there are no mountains in Singapore – only hills; and at 105 meters in height, Mount Faber breaks the 'three digit barrier' and makes into the country's top ten list!

In 1823, the foot of Telok Blangah Hill was the site of the local Malay Chief (Temenggong) Abdul Rahman's settlement. It was not until 1845 that the hill was renamed after Captain Charles Faber.  Using mainly Indian convict labor, Faber built the narrow, winding road to the summit of Mount Faber. In those days, the colonial authorities had a flagstaff and signal station at the top of the hill. Both remained active until the 1970s.

The entrance to the Marang Trail which takes one to the top of Mount Faber
Today, Mount Faber is a popular sightseeing and relaxation spot for locals and foreigners alike. The more adventurous take the Marang Trail from 'ground level' up 70 meters, or the equivalent of 24 floors to Mount Faber Peak. The trail covers a distance of almost one kilometer.

At the top of Mount Faber, one can enjoy a nice panoramic view of the city, including Singapore's ubiquitous Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment buildings. Looking south, one finds the resort island of Sentosa and industrial facilities at Pulau Brani (Isle of the Brave).

A view from Mount Faber's peak. Note the yellow and white HDB public housing apartment buildings in the foreground
A visit to Mount Faber takes in more than just scenery. One can chill out with a beer or over a meal at one of several food outlets located at the Peak. Additionally, the Peak is also the starting point for the Singapore Cable Car journey to Sentosa Island. A round-trip cable car 'joyride' lasts about 30 minutes and takes in aerial views of Universal Studios, Sentosa and Harbourfront.

Mount Faber is most associated with its contemporary modern face, i.e. the cable car to Sentosa. However, dig a little below the surface and the rich history of Telok Blangah Hill starts to appear. Like many places in this Little Red Dot, Singapore's modernity blends seamlessly with a diverse history ... and one hasn't even mentioned Radin Mas' name!
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Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. If you wish to arrange customized tours in Singapore, including walking tours of sites such as Mount Faber or the Singapore River trail, please contact Imran at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A small piece of Japan in Singapore: the Japanese Cemetery Park


Japan's occupation of Singapore during World War Two is well known, but few know of the broader history of Japan's links with the city-state. A great way to understand these linkages is by visiting the Japanese Cemetery Park, located in Singapore's Yio Chu Kang area.


The cemetery, said to be the largest Japanese graveyard in Southeast Asia, contains 910 tombstones, including several of well known personalities. It cemetery was created in 1891 after three Japanese brothel owners obtained government permission to build a graveyard for destitute Japanese prostitutes or karayuki-san that were present in Singapore in large numbers between the years 1870 and 1920. Karayuki-san, which means 'going to China' or 'going overseas,' comprised the bulk of the Japanese population in Singapore between 1870 and 1920. One large section of the Cemetery houses the graves of many of these Japanese women.

Prior to the karayuki-san's arrival in Singapore came a Japanese gentleman sailor called Yamamoto Otokichi, also known as John Matthew Ottoson. In 1832, Otokichi was shipwrecked and finally landed on the shores of present day Oregon, United States. Following a circuitous and painful journey, which included becoming prisoner of a Native American tribe, Otokichi found himself working for British colonial authorities in Southeast Asia and China.

In the late 1840s, Otokichi took up residence in Singapore and stayed in the city until his death in 1867. Otokichi is regarded as the first Japanese resident of Singapore; an honor which led a delegation from his hometown in Mihama (Aichi Prefecture) to visit Singapore in 2005. The delegation collected a portion of his remains to his hometown for burial – arguably a homecoming late by 138 years.

The tomb housing a part of Otokichi's remains. 
The World War Two Syonan-to years are well represented in the Cemetery.

The Hinomoto guardian deity stands tall at the main entrance, reminding visitors of the 41 Japanese civilians who perished in Allied internment camps at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after Japan's surrender.

Also inside the Cemetery is a War Memorial dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who died as Allied prisoners of war in Singapore and Johor after the war as well as the 135 Japanese soldiers executed as War Criminals in Changi prison. However, pride of place within the Cemetery is given to Field Marshall Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Supreme Commander of Japanese Forces in Southeast Asia. General Terauchi died in June 1946 at a prisoner of war camp in Johor, Malaysia.

In the years since the end of World War Two, Singapore's relations with Japan have improved progressively. From the opening of the first post-war Japanese business establishment in 1954, today's Singapore is a hub for many Japanese multinational corporations operating in Southeast Asia. Japan is one of Singapore's top ten trading partners, with total trade aggregating USD 48 billion in 2013 (compared to say Singapore's former colonial master, the United Kingdom, with which total trade totaled USD 14 billion in 2013). 

A structure with deities located near the park's entrance.
History helps shape nations and peoples. Yet there is also no reason to be held hostage by unpleasant historical events. A visit to the Japanese Cemetery Park in Singapore underscores the power of realistic progress, i.e. building the future without forgetting the past.
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Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. If you wish to arrange customized tours in Singapore, including tours of World War Two sites such as Changi Museum and the Japanese Cemetery Park, please contact Imran at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Progress, harmony and eco-tourism in Singapore


Singapore is well known as a modern metropolis – Southeast Asia's global city. Yet, few are aware Singapore also contains a genuine patch of rainforest within an otherwise highly developed concrete jungle. The 6.2 hectares of rainforest is located in the center of the city and is part of the original site of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), founded in 1859, is Singapore's candidate for the country's first UNESCO listed World Heritage Site.

View of the Marina Bay area at night from Gardens by the Bay (East)
However, Singapore's underappreciated penchant for blending the old with the new is fully displayed at the newer Gardens by the Bay (GBTB). Opened in 2012, the GBTB are 101 hectares of intense pleasure, especially for nature lovers. The gardens contain two specialized greenhouses: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. (For those who simply wish to get out of the blazing Singapore sun or incessant rain, both domes are nice and cool – verging on cold!)

The Flower Dome, which contains nine different gardens such as the Succulent Garden and South American Garden, replicates cool and dry climate of the Mediterranean. Flowers from five different continents, i.e. Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania are on display inside the Flower Dome. The 1,000 year old Olive Tree is a standout! The Flower Dome even gets a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records 2015 as the largest columnless glass greenhouse in the world.  

The second greenhouse, the Cloud Forest, contains orchids, pitcher plants and ferns from the cool-moist mountains and other higher elevation tropical highlands (up to 2,000-metres above sea level). At a height of 35 meters, the Cloud Forest also contains the world's tallest indoor waterfall. The 'planted walls' on the 'mountain' inside the greenhouse provide a unique touch to the greenhouse.

A view of the Supertree Grove at night
The new, modern Singapore is clearly visible in the garden's Supertree Grove. Supertrees? These are 'trees' with a height of 25-50 meters (up to sixteen storeys) and create the forest 'canopy' structure for the gardens. At night, the Supertrees are tastefully lit up as part of a light and sound show.

GBTB are not just about flowers and plants. For many, the sight of a gigantic naked baby located in the park's Meadow is the highlight of any visit. Titled 'Planet,' the work was created by internationally acclaimed sculptor Marc Quinn and depicts Quinn's infant son. The statue – if one can call it that – appears to float above the grass. 'Planet' is one of over 40 works of art nestled within the Gardens by the Bay.

Marc Quinn's sculpture of a naked baby 'Planet' canbe found in the Meadow, Gardens by the Bay
For many, Singapore represents nothing but sleek, modern glass skyscrapers within a bustling urban environment. But the Little Red Dot is much more than a modern metropolis. For those who care to look, Singapore offers diverse experiences, including the city's 'contemporary' botanic gardens called Gardens by the Bay.
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Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. If you wish to arrange customized tours in Singapore, including tours of the Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay, please contact Imran at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Imran Khan: don’t you have a province to govern?


As a cricketer, Imran Khan was a fine leader and brought cricketing glory to Pakistan in 1992. However, even during his World Cup victory speech it was clear what Imran Khan is about – himself! Imran's victory speech ignored Pakistani fans, the nation and his teammates. It only referred to his personal obsession and his career (watch the video from one minute onward to understand why I make the claim).


As a politician, Imran Khan has fared less well. For starters, it seems Imran's ego cannot accept losing Pakistan's 2013 general elections, particularly to a 'twice tried and failed' Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). After all, Imran Khan's Pakistan's Tehrik Insaf (PTI) party promised to rid the nation of corruption in 100 days; build a cricket pitch in each district; and, most importantly, was led by the only person who knows how to fix Pakistan, i.e. Imran Khan himself.

So maybe it was Imran's ego which led to the PTI's poorly timed (Pakistan's Independence Day – really?) and unsuccessfully executed 'Long March' from Lahore to Islamabad. Once the Long March fizzled out, the Prime Minister 'wannabe' decided to take his party deeper into the political wilderness. He has called for a civil disobedience movement  against the government by demanding Pakistanis stop paying utility bills, taxes, etc (Imran Khan: Pakistan's Martin Luther King, jr. in the nation's fight against an 'illegitimate' government?!).

The Pakistan Monument located in Islamabad, the nation's Capital city
Now the PTI has asked all its Parliamentarians to resign from the National and Provincial Assemblies. But wait, there's some fine print. No Parliamentarians need to resign from the Khyberpukhtoonkhwa (KPK) Provincial Assembly! I guess the polls were only rigged in the three provinces where the PTI did not win enough seats to form a government?

Imran Khan – hit the reset button and get with the national storyline! You can still salvage the PTI and yourself from the hole you have dug over the last few weeks.

Rescind calls for civil disobedience and move away from confrontation. Instead, start delivering on election promises through the PTI managed KPK provincial government. Focus energies on constructive and useful issues, e.g. spearhead the polio immunization campaign in KPK, champion female education in a province still sceptical of its benefits, etc. There are a thousand and one things in KPK which scream for attention and political will. Voters will naturally flock to the PTI once they see KPK effectively governed by the party.

The way to winning the Pakistani people is not through confrontational politics. It is through good governance. The people of KPK gave you an opportunity to showcase your party's effectiveness in governing. Don't squander the trust of the KPK electorate.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Monday, 11 August 2014

Singapore: Asia's Little Red Dot and Economic Powerhouse

  • Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has become a global economic powerhouse.
  • With its 'entrepot' history, Singapore is a regional trading hub ranked as the 2nd most competitive country in the world.
  • Recently, Singapore has moved up the economic ladder into higher value added sectors, e.g. biotechnology and the biomedical industry.
  • Singapore's fiscal conservatism, ample FX reserves and solid legal infrastructure underscore the country's relative attractiveness within a fast growing region.
Read the full article, first published on Seeking Alpha on August 4, 2014, via this link: http://seekingalpha.com/article/2377295-singapore-asias-little-red-dot-and-economic-powerhouse