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RIP Sportsmanship. An antiquated idea that has been abandoned.

I think we are all watching the death throes of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct on the Tour de France this year.

cancellara It has traditionally been the practice that, when one rider falls or has mechanical trouble, his competition will wait for him to get back on his bike and catch up before resuming racing.  We saw Fabian Cancellara marshalling the peloton in Belgium when the Schleck brothers fell.

However, by the time the race had progressed to the Pyrenees, we had seen Alberto Contador fail to wait for Andy Schleck when the latter’s chain came off, and consequently to take eight seconds off him in the classement général.  And Carlos Sastre, after another incident, issued a statement saying, “I didn’t wait.  Why should I? No-one waited for me.  Anyone who has any issue with my behaviour can talk to me directly.”

Road cycling in Europe is a sport in which the concertive power of peer expectations is very powerful, with all those French and Belgian riders.  They have no qualms about insulting foreigners who step out of line and they have a number of subtle French insults to deploy if they feel like it.  I’m not sure it is exactly gentlemanly conduct that they are up to.  But certainly respecting traditional codes of behaviour.  And it does seem to have broken down before our eyes over the last week.

I guess next week we will hear the results of the blood-tests.  If it is the same as last year then the top ten riders will all be disqualified…

walking I was actually surprised to see that this level of sportsmanship and consideration for one’s adversary is still being practiced in road cycling.  Most other sports abandoned it years ago.  I recall from the ‘70s that it was common in the game of cricket for a batsman to ‘walk.’  This is a practice where the batsman knows that he snicked the ball with bat or pad, but the umpire missed it.  Without saying a word the batsman would take off his gloves, tuck his bat under his arm and walk back to the pavillion.  In recent years I have never seen a batsman walk and in fact the official policy of the Australian cricket team is not to walk.  Cricketers give interviews saying, “I don’t believe in walking.  The umpire missed it.  Good for me.  The important thing is winning.”

In Rugby Union last year when Sterling Mortlock came back from shoulder reconstruction surgery I observed the Springbok forwards deliberately land on his shoulder in the tackle again and again in an effort to ‘pop it.’  In AFL that sort of behaviour is completely normal and a player coming back from a hamstring injury will be kicked accidentally in the hamstring.  A player known to have his ribs taped, will catch elbows all day long.  Even in the World Cup we saw Dutch strikers being stamped on by Uruguayan players.

Paris That’s it these days, I’m afraid.  Winning is everything.  Money talks.  The rest is naïveté and historical anachronism.  And if you watch children playing sport you will see them doing all the same things because they imitate what they see on television.  Makes me feel old and inconsequential.  All I can do is write blog posts observing the passing.

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On Becoming a Local

“Cross-cultural tales”

wheel1 I needed to get the hub of my front bicycle wheel looked at.  It was clicking.  I thought that I might have split a bearing.  There are two bike shops in my local suburb.

At the first shop. the young shopkeeper took one look and said, ‘You need a new wheel.  You see, the spokes are all rusty and we would break some of them taking the hub out and blah, blah, blah…’  He led me towards some carbon fibre wheels worth $250 each.

‘Cheap ones please,’ I protested.  ‘I’m not ready for the Tour de France yet.’

‘Yes, I know.  These are the cheapest wheels in our shop.’

‘Let me shop around, I might come back…’

wheel2 When I arrived at the second shop it was lunch-time and the shopkeeper was not there.  An old Malay man came from out the back, with bike grease all over his hands and arms.  I explained the problem and he said,

‘We don’t have any ball-races here, but let me take it apart and service it and have a look for you.  Ten dollars.  Come back in a couple of hours.’

I seemed to hesitate so he offered, ‘If I can’t fix it, then I won’t charge you.’  He also explained to me that wheels come in pairs these days; two for $180.  I shook his hand and thanked him heartily.

Coming back the next day, the old man was pleased to see me, greeted me cheerfully, and handed over the wheel.  He explained that it wasn’t the ball-race that was the problem, but that the cone was ‘Already not good.’  I tried to press money on him, but he said, ‘You pay out the front.’

Out the front, the shop assistant asked me if I wanted to wait a long time for my receipt.

Recognising this particular game from a long time ago, in another country, I said, ‘Yes I will wait for my receipt.’  At which, he produced it reasonably promptly and I scrutinised it closely in front of him, before saying ‘Thank You’, walking out, and throwing it in a bin.

wheel3 So, becoming a local.  It’s all about who you can trust and who you can’t.  When things start to go sideways, then why?  And what can you do about it?  Which odd things are common to everyone here?  And which odd things are simply because of the individual that you are dealing with.  To me that is the buzz of cross-cultural living.  It’s a great buzz and I am astounded by how many of the ex-pats here would just pay-and-pay, then feel aggrieved, then moan to their friends about being gouged.

Coming to you from a place where market forces are tested on a daily basis, and the price of anything is what someone is prepared to pay for it.  I have started to notice that there are at least two economies operating here, possibly three.  I know some families that get by on around $1500/month.  An ex-pat would likely spend 10 times that amount in a month without really trying.  Even at the supermarket, if you check there are tins of beans with known Western labels on them for $5, and tins of beans with Chinese labels on them for $2.

Even odder, to me, is that some ex-pats make a virtue of paying through the nose all the time, because they are not prepared to come down-market.  They prefer to live a high-rolling, haemorrhaging–money lifestyle. And absolutely refuse to step outside the ex-pat laager.

Cross-culturalism is a fascinating pass-time for a straight-line thinker like me.  And it’s not just about what you can accept as different.  There are a whole bunch of new and fascinating experiences that you could not get back home, which we should throw ourselves into, and drink deeply thereof.  And have our lives enriched thereby.  As above, sometimes just getting your bike fixed can be a study in human nature and psychology.  Loving it!

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Servants

Asian nanny, caucasian child More of that

A common sight around here is to see Filipina maids with their Caucasian charges  To my eyes it always looks odd, I am not yet used to it. 

Servants are really cheap here.  You can get a live-in maid for around $200 per month.  The politically correct term is ‘helper.’  For that, someone will come and live in a 2m x 1m concrete room out the back with no air-conditioning or fan, and do all the cooking, cleaning and child-minding for you.

The place is alive during the day with gardeners, cleaners, maids, pool-boys, even dog-walkers.  I don’t have a photo of that yet, but to see a little Filipina woman walking a Rhodesian ridgeback or an Alsatian or some clearly western-style family pet also takes some adjustment.

 gardener CleanersPool boy

It’s against my principles to pay someone beans to do all the menial work while I lie on the couch with my laptop.  I don’t mind doing a bit of skivvying.  But then I don’t have young children, and I don’t have to go out to work.

The proponents of having servants would argue that by not employing these people, I am denying them a livelihood, denying them the opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of the kampong, and cursing them all to everlasting poverty.  I guess that also is true.  Some of them speak good English and even have degrees, but there just aren’t enough jobs in the Philippines.  It’s not always about education, it’s about jobs.

In Africa I refused to have cleaners and things because I didn’t want  to be a colonialist.  They laughed at me for this attitude, but it seemed to me that one always wound up arguing about the quality of the work or the amount of the pay or something, as soon as one entered into a boss-subordinate relationship with people who might otherwise be your friends.

The rich appear to be completely idle and bored.  It’s not a racial divide exactly, it’s a pleutocracy.  Rich Asians, rich Indians, rich Whites.  Poor Asians from the Phillipines, China and Mongolia, Poor Indians.

Indians talking Bored white woman, mid-morning Idle Eastern European Idle the leisured class of 3 races poor asian nanny of rich asian child rich Indian children

The only conclusion I can draw from the above pictures is that the workers appear to be a bloody sight happier.  People derive quite a lot of benefit out of working away at something.  I guess I would say that it is idleness that is wrong.  The old saying, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” has a lot to recommend it.  It must be terrible to realise that you are rich and useless.  Then I guess that you would start complaining about your servants to bolster your own self-image…

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The Tanzanian Ministry of Health

000013When I was younger, I was involved in a small way with the WHO Global Programme on AIDS and the WHO Health Learning Materials Programme in this country.  This  brought me into contact with senior bureaucrats in the Ministry.  I even partied with the then Principal Secretary on one occasion.

 

Tanzania was then a socialist one-party state.  There are other parties now but none has ever gotten into power.  CCM has ruled since independence.  Their ministries are centrally run.  There is a strong emphasis on manpower-planning and centralised planning.  At independence Tanzania had something like four nationals who were doctors.  So the need to train health personnel has always been ever-present.

Tanzania is a big country.  About the size of France and Germany together.  So the problem with centralised decision-making (and a corrupt bureaucracy) could easily be seen by walking out of the MoH, down the street, into a community clinic where the Medical Assistants there (not doctors), did not have basic things like surgical string or plaster-of-paris to treat the people who queued-up outside. 

Huge amounts of donor money poured in at the top, but seemed not to have very much effect on the ground, out in the field.  Infrastructure also was disastrous so getting supplies out to the regions was also difficult but not impossible.  We managed quite successfully using a system of tea-chests and inter-city busses.

amos
This chap pictured here was a colleague.  Dr. Amos Mwakilasa.  He was Vice Principal at the Centre for Educational Development in Health, Arusha (CEDHA).  He went on to become the Assistant Director of the Ministry of Health.  Sort-of the ‘Sir Humphrey’ of the MoH there.

In the last few years the MoH has been going through a strategic planning exercise.  The conclusion of which has been to ”get the Ministry out of the provision of health-care nationally!”  Astounding.  But I can sort-of see the logic.  I can’t find a reference to this in English, there are references in a couple of other languages.  Here is one in French if you can read that.  Amos has been making this argument around the country, in neighbouring countries and to international donors.

The logic goes that they have resource-constraints in all areas.  Doctors are fed up with the Ministry and are leaving the country to go and practice in Malawi or somewhere else where they can get on-going in-service training to keep their qualifications current.  And to work within a system where the basic necessities of health delivery are available. 

Citizens often prefer to visit a traditional healer than go near the hospitals, which they regard as death traps.

amos2 AIDS is a national epidemic in the West of the country.  In the NorthWest they are overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the strife in Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Congo over the last 20 years.

So, it seems to me this is a national confession that “We have failed.”  Almost fifty years of Ujamaa (African socialism), centralised planning, manpower development, hasn’t worked. 

It is brave to admit such a thing.

The new approach will be to privatise the delivery of health care in the country, in a ‘public-private partnership,’ as the buzzword is.  The ministry bureaucrats will no-longer be responsible for healthcare delivery, just ‘governance.’  Liaison, co-ordination, influence peddling…

amos3 There is now a bit of a gold-rush as drug companies, health-insurance companies, etc, attempt to stake their claim in this huge country which has a crying need for health services.  You can see that there will be huge profits to be made off of all these sick people!  A number of Ministry officials may well get quite rich from the process of letting these contracts to suppliers.

A presidential commission headed by Judge Joseph Warioba, has attempted to determine the extent of corruption in the administration and produced a report which placed the Ministry of Health in fourth position in the scale of the most corrupt institutions of Tanzania.

I just feel sorry for all the children who die before the age of five.  All the farmers who break their arms and can’t get them set.  All the polio and trachoma.  All the people in the villages who keel over from undiagnosed bilharzia when the worms drill their livers full of holes.  They still have the bubonic plague there in some regions.  The people don’t exactly have spare money for healthcare.  I guess expensive-but-good services is better than no services.  At least the rich will have access now.

amos4Verily, as they say in that country, "Matembo wanaoshindana, manyasi yakunjwe."  This means that when elephants contend with one-another, it is the grass that gets trampled.  In this context it means that when there are huge changes in ideology and government policy, it is the little people who will end up bearing the brunt of it.

 I might be going there next month.  I will try and make contact with some people in the know, and see if it is better or worse.  Then I will post an update here. 

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They’re Drinking Our Beer Here

Well not exactly drinking our beer, but certainly making use of my beer-fridge.

CIMG1021 

CIMG1017 The beer-fridge was surplus-to-requirements in our flat, and taking up space in the spare room.  Through my involvement with the Breadline Group I managed to find a needy family on the other side of the city that had never had a fridge!  So we took it over there and plugged it in for them.  The father of the house had a Persian name, so I rather doubt that he will be using it to store beer in..

CIMG1018 Anyhow, it was a chance for me to check out how Singapore’s poor live, and I have to say that I am very impressed.  Singapore (or I guess more correctly I should say the People’s Action Party (PAP) ), is socialist in housing, though clearly not in a number of other arenas.  Ninety percent of Singaporeans live in an HDB.  HDB stands for Housing Development Board.  That would be around 3.6 million people.  The government owns all the land, builds all the buildings, and leases or rents them to the population for a reasonable, subsidised, amount.  I would happily live in an HDB, and if I was a citizen of Singapore then I would qualify for the subsidised rent.  Unfortunately I am not a citizen.

I have been in a few HDBs now.  They are spacious, they all have tiled floors, and they have these wide windows that you can slide all the way across so that the wind blows through and keeps things cool without the need for air-conditioning. 

According to history books, before PAP started it’s building programme in the ‘50s, the entire island was one huge Asian slum, without water reticulation, power, sewage, or street-lighting.  You can still find these places on the outskirts of Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, but you won’t find anything like that in Singapore!

CIMG1019 It was difficult to tell that I was in a poor part of town.  Everyone was smartly dressed, and the housing and amenities are the same everywhere in the country.  No litter. No graffiti.  No drugs.  No violence.  No crime.  A safe environment.  The only clues were a few more old people, a few more unemployed people wandering around, and a bit of street-hawker activity.  Apart from that everything was orderly and peaceful and smart.  So I was pretty impressed really.  If that’s as bad as it gets, then I would happily live there.

Even in the pleuty suburb of Albert Park, Melbourne, my local shop-keeper was out once a month painting the graffiti off his shop walls, and there were a couple of smash-and-grab raids for cigarettes every year.  In Remuera when I lived there (the top suburb in NZ), the local TAB was knocked over in an armed stick-up, and women in Mt. Eden said they wouldn’t wander around by themselves.  Singapore is so safe that none of those things are much of a consideration here.  I still find it a bit odd to see a gaggle of schoolgirls in their uniforms wander through Clarke Quay after dark, past all the restaurants and bars.  But my guess is that there is absolutely no danger.  It is just such a safe city, and that is a fantastic thing!

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PPE: Politics, Philosophy and Economics

PPE is a course taught at Oxford.  It aims to give the student a quick run-through of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics all in one course.  The Rationale is that, “the answers to economic questions are often political, and the answers to political questions are often philosophical.”  An interesting course, you might  think, until you find out that the first assignment is to read  John Locke in the original.  Anyhow, this is the course that they send the Rhodes Scholars to.

I figure that, to the extent that I have them, my blog should feature big thoughts.  They are the more interesting and lend themselves naturally to a blog I think.

Now that I live in Asia I have a bit of a different filter on my perceptions of the world news and this has led me towards a great big overarching question.

It started with an article on the rise of Asian fascism, and the various ways that some governments have of dealing to opposition parties, their members, and their families.

Then we watched the BBC Doha Debates.  The most recent topic being, “Is Dubai a bad idea?”  There was an exiled Emirati woman there, banging on about Human Rights for all she was worth.  I sort-of thought that the right answer might have been for some of the Sheiks to say, “Look, we are not interested in Human Rights, we are an Arab Sheikdom, we aren’t a democracy, we don’t concede these Western liberal pre-occupations, you bunch of bankrupt hand-wringers.  We are a neo-capitalist fascist state and we think that we are doing alright, thank you very much.  So stop lecturing us about what our values should be!”  Of course they didn’t say that.  But that might have been the truth.

Social Darwinism is a belief that the people at the top are there because they are better people than the people at the bottom.  You often find it espoused in the leafy suburbs.  And it seems to me to fit in with self-interest, authoritarianism and a corporate mode of operation.  In unfettered settings the most ferociously self-interested usually manage to scramble their way up the ladder, red of tooth and claw, and then make a virtue of it by saying that they must have been better, more ethical and harder-working to have gotten there.  No-one believes that. 

The logical conclusion comes when the government tries to encourage the weak and disenfranchised to leave their society by one way or another.

Over a long-enough period of time, in an open society without too much regulation, the clever people will wind up being hundreds of times richer than the dumb people, and that’s why we need governments.  If you just let capitalism rip then you will wind up with a philosophy as famously espoused by Margaret Thatcher when she said, “There is no such thing as society, there are only consumers.”

If everybody is self-interested, greedy and doing anything for power then there is no such thing as society alright, that is for sure.

The trouble is that too much concern for those less well-off than ourselves is very expensive and, with one thing and another, the nations that espouse these Western Liberal values are pretty much bankrupt now.   In the 21st Century the rich and powerful rising nations don’t seem to me to be too much interested in Human rights, Freedom of Speech, equality of opportunity, etc, etc.  People are pretty much worried about making as much money as they can, as fast as they can.  And in a poor country the more so than in a rich one, no-matter what the stated political persuasion is.

I did some research on what the core values of Fascism are, different political systems, different forms of Capitalism, Capitalism and Democracy, and the difference between a Republic and a Democracy (in a democracy the people make the decisions, in a Republic the people elect representatives to make the decisions for them).

Anyhow, I won’t bore you with all of that and people more knowledgeable than me may well take issue with the detail.  So the picture above is my own private little PPE for the start of the 21st Century.  Blue for political systems, green for countries, purple for values.  You get the idea.  I probably won’t live to see the brave new world.  But I can see it coming, and quite fast now.  Comments?

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The King is Dead, Long Live The King!

This is a brief post to mark the passing of the Efficient Market Hypothesis (or EMH), to track my personal exposure to the EMH over the last 30 years, and to wonder how we are going to replace the hoary old liar…

1994

pic1 Our Finance lecturer was very keen on the Efficient Market Hypothesis.  Time and again he would intone that ‘all the information was known,’  that ‘all salient facts had already been impacted into the price of a stock,’ and that ‘if a stock was temporarily mis-priced then clever speculators would buy it, sell it, or short it and make a killing; thereby rapidly returning the stock to it’s true value.’ 

He must have wondered at the looks of disbelief and passing irritation on our faces.  Which only caused him to redouble his efforts at repeating the theory to us.

Our Financial Accounting lecturer was a frequently-imbibing Bulgarian  with tenure and only a couple of years left until retirement.  So he was not particularly interested in anything very much, but simply pointed to a local producer of woolen goods that had been trading at ten times the nett asset backing on the day that it declared bankruptcy.

So that was one nail in the coffin for the EMH.  In this case, all the information was not known.  Senior management of the company had clearly been lying to the market and, as it turned out, seriously overvaluing their warehouses full of greasy-wool mittens, which they clearly had had very little chance of selling at any price!

1987: Black Monday

Secondly, in actual fact, clever speculators probably would not act in the way that the EMH expects them too.  The theory would only work if everyone believed in it, and really not many people do.

As early as 1987 I was buying and selling shares with a bunch of other young yuppies that I worked with.  We all knew that the market was a runaway bull at the time.  We all knew that everything was overpriced, and we all knew that it would crash one day.  In fact opposition MPs would come on the news and tell everyone just that.  But our thinking was not “We should sell short on those overpriced stocks in accordance with the EMH.”  It was more “Let’s see how long it will run,” “Lets see how high it will go,” and “We can be in and out with a tidy profit before the crash comes.”   So that is nail number two in the coffin.  Investors recognise asset bubbles and don’t necessarily think that they are a bad thing that they should act against.

In fact, on the day of the big crash on October 1987, I heard the news from New York on the morning news, and rang my broker as soon as they opened, saying “Sell everything.”  The broker, thinking that my voice sounded quite young, said to me, “I should say that your downside risk is less now that it used to be.”  Nail number three is that brokers are often disingenuous rogues who try to manipulate the market to get their commissions and don’t necessarily have the client’s best interests at heart (they are legally supposed to, it is called a fiduciary obligation).

Finally, every schoolboy knows that the market is based on sentiment.  Greed and fear.  On the up people just pile into a good thing on the basis of ‘me too.’  On the down there is a rush for the door and good stocks with nothing wrong with them get hammered along with everything else.

1992: The Lloyds Names Fiasco

Lloyds I had just arrived in Britain in time for this.  It was essentially a pyramid-game (ponzi-scheme?) between all of the syndicates of Lloyds underwriters, where one syndicate packages up a bit of risk as a security and on-sells it to another syndicate who might do something similar.  At the end of the day the original risk of a ship sailing into the Bermuda triangle or a building project hitting labour-action, was lost sight of in all of the financial instruments and fun and games.

 

1997: LTCM

You probably think I am stating the bleeding obvious at this point.  The trouble is that the assumption that ‘The price is correct’  is built into all the spreadsheets and models that banks, fund managers, economists and various Treasuries and Federal Reserves use to predict the future.  You can’t really build a model that will accurately predict wild emotion-driven booms and busts.

LTCM It gets worse:  Jumping ahead now to 1997 when  two guys who had won the Nobel Prize for economics, Myron Scholes (of the Black-Scholes option-pricing model) and Robert Merton, formed a hedge-fund company called Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM).  This company basically invested your money in derivates for you, and was driven by a hedging computer model that had buried in it somewhere the Value At Risk assumption.

All of portfolio theory is built on the assumption of the correlation, or co-variance of two stocks.  You will have heard people talk about counter-cyclical stocks.  I don’t really believe that there are such things as counter-cyclical stocks, except maybe publicly-listed companies of receivers.  It is often said that newspapers do well in times of depression.  But that was in the 1930s before television, the internet etc.  They might not do so well in the current depression.

Anyhow, LTCM’s model told them that two counter-cyclical or uncorrelated stocks, if held together, would tend to cancel one-another out and give constant returns no-matter what happened (an excellent defensive position).   In risk-management terms LTCM could hold the same financial cushion in cash for both stocks, since they would never drop together.  The trouble was that things started to unwind all over the world, starting with the Russian rouble, spreading to become the Asian crisis, and surprise surprise, everything went down.  So much for co-variance and portfolio theory.  LTCM was hugely exposed and crashed very messily. 

2001: Enron

enron These guys, the so-called ‘Smartest Guys in the Room’ employed something called Mark-To-Market accounting.  Simply stated the argument goes like this:  “How much do you think that a kilowatt-hour of electricity will be worth in San Diego in September of next year?  I say it will be worth $10.75.  Who says it won’t?  I’ll write that valuation into the balance sheet!”  Anyone see anything wrong with this idea?  Efficient markets not looking so cool as an idea now.

 

 

Behavioural Economics: The New King is Only a Child

predictably irrational There is a new branch of economics called Behavioural Economics.  It has a theory called the ‘Adaptive Markets Hypothesis’ which is open to the possibility that a individual investor’s behaviour might be influenced by what he thinks that other investors around him are doing, rather than just a slavish adherence to a model.

Well that is very interesting, but how is anyone going to use a theory like that to price a security, or value a business or a portfolio?  Before you can say that a theory is dead you have to have something to replace it with. 

I hate to say it, but bankers and fund managers are still using the same models that they used to use, because there is currently no useful replacement.  Scary? You bet!

warren Probably the last word deserves to go to Warren Buffet, who famously said, “I’d be a bum on the street with a tin cup if markets were efficient.”

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Watch Real Tough-Guys

Foreign_Singapore_200805160752388902_afp  This was the slogan that Robbie McEwen used to advertise last year’s Tour de France on Australian television.  His point was, instead of a passionate devotion to football players of all codes, Australians should realise that professional cyclists, though small and puny in their upper bodies, are far superior athletes than any AFL or Rugby player, and  spend some time watching the Tour de France.

Certainly the year that they wore heart-rate monitors, the cyclists turned in some amazing results.  Drug-assisted or not, they were reporting heart-rates of 120 – 150 b.p.m. consistently for four or five hours. 

I seem to remember that Robbie went on to crash into a fence-post on a mountain-descent stage, breaking a number of ribs, sternum, and collar-bone, and puncturing a lung.  That’s pretty tough alright!

 

 

_MG_98891

A migrant worker takes a shower in his quarters.

However this post is not about professional cyclists.  It is about an even tougher breed of tough-guy called the Singaporean migrant labourer.  In fact all foreign-labour-force indentured labour anywhere on the planet.  But especially here in Asia and in the Middle East.

Just for some perspective: Two hours on my bike in this climate and I have consumed a litre of water and am starting to show signs of heat-exhaustion (cramping, nausea, headaches…)  I find it hard to imagine how I might spend eight hours a day outside doing construction work with only a bottle of cordial to sustain me.

 Almost all of the labourers here are imported from Indonesia or India.  The employer holds their work-permits, and if things don’t work out, or the boss doesn’t like them for some reason then they get sent home.  Most families seem to have a Filipina maid that does the housework under a similar arrangement.  Mostly these workers can’t speak Mandarin or English.  Usually just sufficient to understand the orders.  So, for example, they can’t speak to the end-customer.

Construction usually proceeds around-the-clock in Singapore.  They install halogen lamps on the site and work through the night as well.  If, for some reason work cannot proceed on the site, then the labourers just find a bit of shade under a tree and go straight to sleep.  They must be permanently knackered.  There are reports (and pictures) of unsafe practices and squalid conditions.  I have observed similar arrangements in the Middle East.

IMG_0603A
Tired workers sleep around the site whenever there is a break. 

Not that anyone is complaining.  The workers are grateful for the opportunity to make money and send it home to their families.  They keep their heads down and get on with it.  Real tough guys.

I would have to say that cheap labour is one of the key components of the economic  miracles occurring in these countries.  A Western democracy could not show the amazing growth figures of a Singapore, a China, or a Dubai since labour is so expensive there.

Or is it?  I have had a couple of reports recently from people in London to say that all of the service staff there these days seem to come from Estonia, Latvia. Lithuania or other Eastern members of the E.U.  One friend could not find anyone in his hotel that spoke English.  He said that they just say ‘Yes’ randomly when they think that you have asked them a question.  Britain finally got a minimum wage in 1999.  Tony Blair brought it in as a part of the requirements of the European Union Commission on Human Rights.  And of course the US has their Mexican workers.

WorkplaceMishapsThe antipodean countries of Australia and New Zealand are known as some of the most fiercely egalitarian cultures in the world.  The belief that ‘Jack is as good as his master’ is a matter of fierce pride in these countries.

NZ has taken a bit of a battering in this regard since the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, and since the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong caused a surge of migration into New Zealand in the late ‘90s.  There has been a subtle long-run ‘down-pricing’ of labour over the years.  But at the heart of the ECA is the requirement for “good faith bargaining”  so any unfair or predatory award-circumventing practices are hammered pretty hard by the Employment Court.

Australia is by far the most admirable bastion of egalitarianism.  Politicians of all persuasions often say that their bedrock value is “A fair go for all.”  This can lead to some odd circumstances where politicians try to be tough on illegal immigration, but soft on boat-people, for example.  There is a large percentage of the electorate that believe that a ‘fair go for all’ should extend to any refugee who happens to wash up on Australian shores. 

a In Australia there was never a Thatcherite breaking of the unions.  Labour and construction are still heavily unionised and there is an award and practices for almost everything.  For this reason service jobs are still done by Australians in Australia, and they are paid award wages for their efforts.

But Australia pays for its principles with low rates of growth in GDP (0% projected for 2009) and can only afford to live by its principles because of huge resources of mineral wealth.  The nations around it are surging ahead on the back of cheap labour (among other things, low corporate taxation rates and strong foreign direct investment also help).

In the 21st century, egalitarianism might prove to be a very expensive principle to hold dear.  And that scares me a bit.  This approach to migrant labour is almost slavery.  It certainly creates a layer of second-class non-citizen in society, and fits quite naturally into the high-power-distance cultures of developing nations around the globe.  It worked for Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome, but haven’t we moved on since then?

Posted in culture, travel, macroeconomics, globalisation, politics and philosophy | Leave a comment

Q409 now in the public domain

Yesterday I rolled out Q409 of Dolphin. 
 
It was (as usual) on time, under budget,  and high quality.
 
 
This version has a CMS, a crowdsourcing survey engine, and some permission-based marketing features (ie, the ability to send newsletters to subscribers via a bulk e-mailer).
 
The next version is in January and will support a social-networking style forum/ bulletin-board module among others.
 
There are some screenshots showing in the photo panel of this blog.  And you can check the sofware out here.
Posted in Work | Leave a comment