Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nurturing Madness

It is almost a month now since a college lecturer in Kerala had his hand chopped by Muslim fanatics, for framing an exam question about a literary character, whose name happened to be Mohammad.

Despite the outrage and anguish triggered by this incident, the fact remains that the police are still on the "look out" for the main suspects. Perhaps they will never be caught, or even if they are arrested, the court case is likely to drag on for a couple of decades.

Is there a pattern or method to this madness? Are these merely the actions of a handful of bigots? Or is there some truth in the allegation that the compulsions of coalition politics is allowing criminals to get away lightly? - especially if the criminals happen to be members of the Hindu rightwing or Muslim religious organisations? 

While we wait for the truth to emerge, it is useful to remember an acidic verse penned by Fehmida Riaz about how India is beginning to resemble like Pakistan:

‘Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle?
Ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai?
Wo ghaamadpan wo jaahilpan jisme humne sadi gawaee
Ab pahonchi hai dwaar tumharey?
Arey badhaee, bahot badhaee.’
(And so you too turned out like us brother? Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past - where were you hiding until now? The easy ignorance, the rabid delinquency we nurtured for decades [in Pakistan], is knocking at your doors now? Congratulations, many congratulations.)



Wikipedia - 2010 Hand-chopping Incident in Kerala

The Waning Romance of an Idea By Jawed Naqvi, DAWN Thursday, 29 Jul, 2010

Not in my Country by Tavleen Singh, Indian Express, Sun Aug 01 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Verma Test

A former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, made a very interesting observation recently. While explaining the challenge of institution-building, he said, "An institution can rise to its true strength, and truly play the role the founding fathers mandated for it, only if it is led by a person who has no past, and no expectation (of any reward) from anybody in the future.”.

Thankfully, my favourite newspaper editor, Shekhar Gupta, was close at hand, not only to mark the significance of this observation, but also to set it in perspective in an op-ed titled, "The Power of One".

SG's focus is on state institutions that have had a strong impact on the Indian polity - the Supreme Court and the Election Commission. But the "Verma Test" seems to be just as valid when it comes to  understanding why some IIT's have become exceptional (eg., P. K Kelkar's role in building IIT Kanpur) or why institutions like IRMA or NDDB have hit the doldrums.

Worth reading!    :)


Gupta, Shekhar (2010). The Power of One, Indian Express, 31 July 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trailing the Tigers

I was a bit shocked when I realised yesterday that within the area occupied by one of the tiniest states in India - Goa - you can fit in two Singapore's, two Hong Kong's, and still have more than a 100 to spare.

Before trying to figure out why, in the whole of South Asia, there isn't a single world-class port or international trading hub, a more basic question: despite their late start, how did a some countries in South East Asia Asia become so prosperous?

In his book, "Innovation in East Asia", Michael Hobday gets down to brasstacks - the firm/company level - to try and explain explain how four "Tiger economies" - South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong - were able to upgrade their technology and their marketing to compete in increasingly sophisticated products and services.

He uses the term - latecomer firms - to describe manufacturing companies that face two sets of competitive disadvantages in attempting to compete for export markets - (1) they are technologically dislocated from main sources of tech and R&D (local labs & universities being poorly equipped), and are (2) dislocated from mainstream international markets & sophisticated users.

The book was written in the early 1990s, so it is a bit dated in the sense that such firms may no longer exist - local labs are stronger, and regional markets may now be more lucrative. But it does give you an idea of how the firms evolved in each of these four, newly industrialised economies (NIE's).

It was no doubt their good fortune to be sitting on the right side of the cold-war fence during the turbulent 60's and 70's. Sitting under the US umbrella not gave them a good dose of enforced political stability but also free access to Western technology, capital and markets during their formative years. The respective national governments also played no small role in getting their priorities right - basic education, healthcare, housing, and macro-economic stability.

Even then, fact is that not all American allies in East Asia prospered. Even within the four NIE's patterns of learning and development varied -


Under the military dictatorship of Gen.Park Chung-hee (1961-1979) took a leaf from the Japanese Zaibatsu strategy and promoted large corporations - the Chaebol's - especially in niche areas like heavy industries, chemical industries, steel, construction and ship-building. The national education budget shot up from 2.4% (1951) to 22% (1981), skilled craftsmen were treated on par with engineers and scientists, all of whom were exempt from the compulsory military service. As a result, companies like Samsung, which began as a trading company dealing in fruit and dried-fish,went on to become world leaders in the manufacture of dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips.

Home-grown Champs:  Samsung, Daewoo, LuckyGoldstar


In 1949, this island, smaller than Kerala and the oldest Japanese colony in the region, found itself flooded with 2 million refugees from mainland China. Most of these newcomers were soldiers, and, fortuitously, a good number of intellectual & business elites fleeing Mao's communists with their moneybags in tow. Gen.Chaing Kai-shek's KMT preferred to encourage a multitude of small companies (SMEs) rather than large corporations.

In 1985, the average SME size was just 24 workers, aAnd they produced everything from bicycles and footwear to sewing machines and high-end electronics. To help these firms, the government set up a range of effective institutions - Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), Institute of Information Technology (III), Electronic Research Services Orgn (ERSO, under ITRI).

The entrepreneurs then went on to exploit FDI to their advantage,eventually making TNCs dependent on their manufacturing skills and their highly productive engineering. Local companies reversed the pattern of TNC exploitation, often complained of in Latin America and other developing areas, by supplying low-cost OEM/ODM services, components, systems and complete products.

Home-grown Champs: Acer, Tatung, Datatech (world's largest motherboard producer), EliteGroup, Mitac, Cal-Comp (calculator champ)


Even before it parted ways with Malaysia in 1965, Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) took a number of steps to woo TNC's. It allowed a level of foreign control inconceivable in either South Korea or Taiwan. While setting up its first industrial park at Jurong (1961) it established training institutes and implemented a series of measures for improving education and technical training. Once the training target was achieved it recommended a large increase in wages to attract technology-intensive manufacturers, moving the less lucrative firms into a "Growth Triangle" in neighboring countries.

By 1990, more than 3000 TNCs were thriving in the city-state, employing one of the most highly educated, ethnically diverse workers, living in the second-most densely populated places on Earth.


Unlike the other three NIE's, this former British entrepot, started out with a laissez-faire approach. The leaders here knew the city born out of the earliest "unequal treaties" would return to China in 1997. So the government just let the traders and entrepreneurs do what they knew best. The big opportunities came after Deng Xiao-Ping initiated his reforms in 1978. Joint ventures (JVs) with mainland China shot-up from less than 100 in 1980 to nearly 40,000 in 1992. The neighboring Guandong province expanded at around 30% in the early 1990s fueld by investments from Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong too official support bodies did their bit - especially the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC), Vocational Training Council (VTC), TDC and IDC.

Home-grown Champs: VTech, KongWah (flatscreen TVs), RJP (palmtops), Varitronics (touch-sensitive, portable hand-heldsystems)
After reading Hobday's book, one cannot help concluding that the biggest advantage these four NIE's had was that they all had pragmatic, competent leadership that shielded itself from the divisive pressures of populist electoral politics...


Hobday, Michael (1995), Innovation in East Asia: The Challenge to Japan, Edward Elgar Publishing Company, USA, 1995

Prof. Mike Hobday - CENTRIM, Brighton, UK -

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Exuberance of Verbosity

This is one thing I've always, always wanted to figure out -- what the heck was Antony Gonzalves trying to say??

In "Amar Akbar Antony", a popular Hindi movie from the late 1970's, Amitabh Bachchan, playing the role of a maverick named Antony Gonzalves, pops out of an Easter egg and sings a song. Its a mixture of English and Hindi, and delightful, unadulterated nonsense.

The Hindi lyrics fits into the overall plot and makes some sense - Mr. Gonzalves, the 'party entertainer' is trying to woo a girl on the sly. But what is he trying to say in English??

Here it is - gibberish deciphered:

"Wait, wait...WAIT! You see the whole country of the system is juxtapositioned by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetoritian intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity!!"

"You see such extenuated circumstances coax me to preclude you from such extravagance!"

"You see the coefficient of the juxtapositioned by the haemoglobin of the atmospheric pressure in the country!"
There is actually a wiki-page dedicated to this song! According to folks-who-know, while Kishore Kumar did the singing, the talking (in English) was by Bachchan himself. And the opening line - "sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity" is from a speech in the British Parliament by Benjamin Disraeli in 1878!

Where did the song-writer, Anand Bakshi, dig that from?? :)



Movie - Amar, Akbar, Antony -

The Song - My Name is Antony Gonzalves -

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Creative Spirits

In a video posted at, the American writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, talks of a "different" way to think about creative genius.

Talking about the pain and pressures of human creativity, Ms. Gilbert laments about the way in which it turns many artists into alcoholics, drug-addicts and other forms of social nuisance, as well as the western notion that creativity and suffering are, somehow, inherently linked. To escape from this "utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process", she digs the past for better and saner ideas on how creative minds could deal with inherent emotional risks of creativity, and finds a solution from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe that creativity came from human beings - it was considered a divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant unknowable source, for unknowable reasons. The Greeks called this attendant, unknowable spirit, the "Daemon", while the Greeks called the same spirit, the "Genius".

Ms. Gilbert also talks about a North African, Muslim tradition of chanting "Allah!Allah!" whenever a dancer elevated his performance to something truly exceptional, even transcendental. A tradition that was carried by the Moors into Europe and became the "Ole! Ole!" for dancers in modern Spain.

It is all very interesting...but at the end of Ms. Gilbert's talk, I wondered why her search for the creativity problem did not take her further East. She might have discovered the rationale behind the 'invention' of numerous deities in the Hindu pantheon; a tried-and-tested "protocol" to deal with the destructiveness of the ego or the "aham-karam" (Sanskrit for the "I" factor) in which all creativity was attributed to "Saraswati" - the goddess of knowledge, skill and learning. As well as the reason why some of the finest Indian classical musicians and dancers, wear the crown of fame & glory so lightly.

This also brought back memories of a performance by the flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia at Nehru Park in Delhi, a few years ago. Following a flawless rendition of Raag Yaman Kalyaan, when some excited fans shouted their praise, he simply said that he was merely being used by Goddess Saraswati.

"There are nights", he said, "when I'm practicing alone, she overwhelms me so completely with her music...that I am convinced that she's alive in my bansuri. On those nights, I end up carefully tucking my flute-set into my bed, while I sleep on the floor."



A different way to think about creative genius: Elizabeth Gilbert on -

Friday, July 02, 2010

Singapore - Origins of the "Fine" City

One of the most popular souvenirs from Singapore are the t-shirts that proclaim, "Singapore is a Fine City". It is, of course, meant to be punny, but the irrefutable fact is that swift and strict enforcement of penalties is a very effective detterent. For such a densely populated country,  with so many migrants and tourists, the streets are not only litter-free but also free from muggers, drug-peddlers and other assorted criminals.

How did such a "fine" system originate?

I always thought it was a legacy of the British colonial administration. Not so. It is, if fact, a legacy of  the Japanese occupation of Singapore, during WW2 (1942-1945).

In his book, "The Singapore Story", Lee Kuan Yew, says -

The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies, their motivation s and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle of revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience.

...The Japanese Military Administration governed by spreading fear. It put up no pretence of civilized behavior. Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare. In the midst of deprivation after the second half of 1944, when people were half starved, it was amazing to see how low th crime rate remained. People could leave their front doors open at night...people..patrolled their own localities. But it was a mere formality. They carried only sticks and there were no crimes to report - the penalties were too heavy. As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. It was not my experience in Singapore before the was, during Japanese occupation, or subsequently.

So the lesson learnt by LKY was that in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society, "fear is the key". The Japanese themseves, on the other hand, seem to rely on far more subtle - and proactive - methods to keep their own streets safe & clean...



Lee Kuan Yew - Interview with Fareed Zakaria (CNN)

LKY - 3 Part series compiled by Daniel Tay

Machiavelli's Tiger: Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's Authoritarian Regime (Uri Gordon)

NYT - Excerpts from Interview with LKY (29 Aug 2007)

Lee Kuan Yew Watch -


Dirigiste (Fr. noun) - Economic planning and control by the state, "...euro zone needs a core of dirigiste powers to run Europe on a more political and less technocratic way..."