Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Awami League Win: Flawless Victory

My predictions scored 1/3. At 33%, that's a fail. :P

The Victory

The Awami League won not by a landslide, but by an avalanche. They now control 87% of parliament at 263 seats out of 299.

This is unprecedented. In 2001, where allegations of some voter fraud were substantiated by local and international observers, the Awami League did not lose by this big a margin.

In 1996, the BNP did not lose by this big a margin.

The only other party in Bangladesh's history to undergo such a dramatic reversal of fortunes was the party of H.M. Ershad, the Jatiya Party (People's Party). He was a former dictator and president discredited for rampant corruption, and the Jatiya Party today is a shadow of its former self, relegated to its stronghold in North Bengal.

I genuinely hope a similar fate does not await the BNP; without a functioning opposition, a democratic government cannot be expected to function.

Is This Good or Bad?

The standard answer to a question like that is: a bit of both.

It's bad because we all know power corrupts. And in the world's most corrupt country, power corrupts absolutely. Without a functioning opposition, the Awami League will think it has a carte blanche, and attempt to do whatever it pleases.

You'll notice that in press briefings, Sheikh Hasina (or Khaleda Zia for that matter) is very limited in her praise for the elecotorate, the people who actually voted for her.

There is a disconnect in South Asian politics between the governed and the government. Those who come into power feel as though it was their right all along, and that this has simply been "restored" to them.

A bad side-effect, perhaps, of dynastic politics.

So yes, this is bad. The Awami League won a bit too much.

But it's really not all that bad, within the context of just the election.

This is a "known bug" within democracy. Yes, the common will can't always be depended upon to take the nuanced, correct route. People don't go protesting in the streets shouting "BE REASONABLE!"

But in bad economic times and incompetent governance, this is the rule, not the exception. In the US elections of 1928, Herbert Hoover and the Republicans came into power with 84% of the popular vote, a landslide. 4 years and a Great Depression later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, won 88% of the vote.

Barack Obama won by a small margin in absolute terms, but he defeated John McCain very handily as US elections go. In bad times, people make large political moves toward "change", whether it be substantiated change or merely rhetorical change.

One should look at this huge shift in Bangladeshi politics less as a slight upon the institution, and more as a massive reprobation against the BNP-Jamaat.

Votes are binary, you either vote for someone or you don't. It doesn't measure the fact that according to a pre-election poll by the Pew Research Center, more than 70% of the electorate in Bangladesh is completely jaded by politics and have resigned themselves to more of the same no matter who comes into power. The high voter turnout is not a credit to the campaigns that were run by the Awami League or the BNP, but a credit to the enduring spirit of democracy among the people of Bangladesh.

Many people voted for the Awami League not because they liked them, but because they hated the BNP more.

Let's not forget, of the 4 years Bangladesh appeared as the most corrupt country in the world, the last year of Awami League rule in 2001 was the first, and set the precedent. The BNP-Jamaat merely ran with the baton for an additional few years until Nigeria and Afghanistan caught up.


They contested in 32 constituencies and won only 2 of them. Their party leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami lost his own constituency.

Quite frankly, I didn't expect this. I was under the impression that the Jamaat-e-Islaami had an entrenched voter base that would vote for them no matter what, and this now seems untrue. Well, you live and you learn.

It seems what most people really want is food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. The failed anti-corruption drive of 2007 by the interim government discovered huge amounts of foreign aid stashed away in party leaders' homes, and this must have left a lasting impression in people's minds; it was, after all, stealing from the poor. Accompanied with massive inflation that, admittedly, they weren't responsible for, this must have been a concern.

What I found most amusing was that in Khulna-5, the Jamaat-e-Islaami candidate Miah Golam Parwar was running against the Awami League's Hindu candidate, Narayan Chandra Chanda. He was running a negative fear campaign, telling people to choose to vote between "the Quran and Narayan," no doubt using the rhyme to good end.

He lost by 35 thousand votes in a Muslim-majority area.

Fiery sermons and bigotry are the hallmarks of the Jamaat-e-Islaami in Bangladesh. These people colluded with criminal elements in the Pakistani army during 1971 war, and aided and abetted in atrocities against people they considered subhuman (the Hindus) or invalidly Muslim.

I'm ashamed that their party bears the name of my faith. Intolerant and hateful, they should be spurned and turned away, and I'm left wondering now how they even won 2 seats.

Well, that's democracy for you!

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

The quasi-military caretaker government (CTG) failed miserably at its anti-corruption drive. After separating the judiciary from the executive in 2007 (after the BNP promised it for 5 years without delivering), they pressured the judiciary into releasing all the candidates on bail in 2008, staying their cases so that they can contest in the elections.

They only caught a handful of bigwigs of corruption, and corruption is as much an institution in third-world Bangladesh today as it was in January 2007 when the CTG came into power.

The few that they jailed may serve as a deterrent for future politicians, but in reality, they are so few that it's more attributable toward random bad luck than people getting their just deserts. It's still uncertain which precedent will have a more lasting effect.

That being said, the CTG promised elections in calendar 2008. And they delivered.

This election campaign has been one of the least disruptive campaigns in the history of the country. Walls were not defaced with posters, banners and leaflets were suspended on ropes across the street giving it a festive feel.

The practice of "Mic'ing" (pronounced Mike'ing, where rickshaw-wallahs retrofitted with loudspeakers ride around town with a gruff voice blaring at high volume and high speed for people to vote a certain way) was limited to certain hours of the day so as not to disrupt or distract trade or commerce.

Campaign gatherings were limited to certain gathering points so as not to block traffic, and the street prosessions politely gave way to oncoming traffic.

The photo essay of the BBC shows an election atmosphere much like that of Eid, a festival, with people talking to each other while standing in line and sharing laughs.

Roughly 15% of the population is urban. Of these, most are from the villages, where they probably registered to vote. At 80% turnout, that means many people from the village actually travelled home to vote.

The enthusiasm and well-executed nature of this election is unprecedented. That's an achievement of the CTG, and something to be proud of.

Despite their massive failures in the anti-corruption drive and their "Minus Two" policy, this achievement alone is enough to redeem them.

Lets not forget, the very political parties that got voted into power in these elections couldn't make this happen.

The Future

I'm deeply concerned that the free and fair elections of 2008 will be the last piece of good news that's going to come out of Bangladesh for at least the next 5 years.

I'm not a betting man, but even if I was, all bets would be off. I'm hopeful and optimistic, but I'm going to prepare for the worst. The Awami League did a bad job between 1996 and 2001, and I have seen little to no indication that they'll change for the better.

The onus right now, though, is actually on the BNP. As most foreign media outlets put it, it really doesn't matter who wins, since policy-wise, both these parties are pretty much identical. What matters more is who loses, because it's the sore losers who agitate and paralyse the country.

But a man's got to hope.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Elections: Bangladesh Decides

Hell, it's about time!

This is the culmination of a very long wait. The elections were supposed to have been held in 2006, after a 5-year term by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islaami alliance. They delayed it until the very end of 2006, and by attempting to doctor the Election Commission, sparked nationwide protests and violence which cost lives.

Never a dull day in Bangladeshi politics.

The caretaker government took over in Jan. 2007, and promised free and fair elections by the end of calendar year 2008. And by golly gee, they delivered. Elections on Dec. 29th, 2008. Cutting it a little close, hey?

A lot has been achieved in the past year. A digitized national voter list, which is supposed to, in theory, lessen the impact of vote fraud, and new election campaigning rules which has made life a lot easier for businesses and commerce to continue in the midst of the changeover.

I have a few predictions. These are casual, by-stander predictions, and are at best, guesstimates. I'm not an analyst, but I feel the winds on the ground, and if I see the clouds on the horizon, it's reasonable for me to think there's rain a-comin'.

1. The Awami League will win.

5 years of the BNP-Jamaat's hardline right-wing politics has left people a bit angry, so I imagine a lot of people will sway the Awami League way, just to spite the BNP-Jamaat.

But the Awami League is left-leaning, so I'm not sure what to make of their victory, if they do win. But in today's world, it doesn't matter which way you lean. India and China has shown the developing world which way works best, and when it comes right down to it, the policies of increased trade liberalization, deregulation and decentralization will continue no matter who comes into power.

The Awami League has been in power in the late 90s, and they did a terrible job of it. But people remember with more clarity the mess-ups of the BNP right now, so I think the negative sentiment will buoy the Awami League.

In 2001, the BNP-Jamaat alliance got a very strong mandate from the people. There probably was lots of vote rigging and vote buying at the time (I can't say for sure, I didn't follow it that much at the time), but you can't rig your way to a win of the magnitude that was recorded. So the Awami League is certainly no panacea.

But I still think they'll win. That's the way the wind is blowing now.

2. Lots of people will vote blank votes.

That is actually allowed this time, the no-confidence vote. I think a lot of people will, and that will indicate very powerfully how jaded a lot of people have become about politics in Bangladesh. Neither of these parties have delivered sufficient results, and the steady clip of 6% GDP growth over the past few years has been despite the government, not because of.

3. Jamaat-e-Islaami will possibly lose a bit of their votes, or gain a little bit, but not move much on the electoral map.

For the record, I'm not a fan.

They have a terrible human rights record when it comes to ethnic minorities (the Hindus and the Ahmediyyas in particular), they're holding back the emancipation of women in Bangladesh, a very important facet of social and economic reform, and I feel that they are complicit in some of the terrorism in Bangladesh with vitriolic sermon rhetoric.

But their support base is deeply entrenched, people who believe it is their duty to "save Islam" as Khaleda Zia put it in one of her speeches. As if Islam somehow needs to be saved.

Do I wish I were wrong?

If I had a wish, then I'd wish the Jamaat-e-Islaam voter base decreases in size dramatically. It would prompt them to do some soul-searching, and maybe some young'uns can come forward with a better strategy for a new age. Chances of that happening? Very, very little. Arguably many of the young'uns coming out of the Jamaat are as extreme, if not more extreme than their aged counterparts. And religious sentiments run deep and strong, and you can't reason someone out of an opinion they came to through emotion.

Since I'm wishing, I also hope the no-vote category is very large this time around, and that the Awami League still win. A large no-vote would signal to the political parties a large bank of potential votes that they may try to woo through proper social, political and economic progress.

And I'm not into ponies, so really, I wish for a warp-10 Galaxy-class starship with transporter and holodeck capabilities.

Monday, December 22, 2008

World of Goo

I'm not a gamer, and I don't do game reviews. So this is more evangelism than anything else.

World of Goo was developed by independent game writers 2D Boy ("I love you 2D Boy!"), using lots of open source components brought together to make a delightful little game.


The story is really a backdrop to the gameplay, which consists of taking little goo balls and assembling goo-ey structures like towers and bridges that oscillate and undulate under the cumulative weight of the goo balls you attach onto them. Attach too many, and it will buckle. Attach too few, and you won't be able to make it to your target.

Every level has a start and an end point, and you're given a certain number of goo balls to assemble a structure to get there. You're supposed to have a few goo balls as surplus at the end of it, and the challenge is to have enough goo balls free, i.e. not used as part of the structure, to win the level. They get sucked up into a big vacuum machine and put away.

The story has something to do with the "Goo Corporation" and some corporate conspiracy. The goo balls are self-aware and extremely adorable, but not aware that they were designed by the Goo Corporation, are used in "industry", and that they are incredibly tasty.

The Technology

The core of this game is its physics engine, which was used from an open source software library. The goo-ey structures oscillate and undulate under the weight of the additional goo balls you attach onto them, and obey the laws of physics much how you would expect them to, (with sufficient suspension of disbelief). The engine seems to have integrated variables of mass, center of mass, moment of inertia, friction, and joint strength (something I never studied in high school enough to name), where structures that are too heavy buckle under the weight and become mere attachments instead of rigid support.

A host of other open technologies were used to assemble the game, and the core development team was extremely small. But they have done a superb job of integrating these technologies into a cohesive, wholesome product that is fun to use, play, and share.

Re-playability and Value

The game is tremendously replayable. Once you've finished all the levels you can go back and play them and see how you could solve the levels differently, assembling the goo balls in weird ways to achieve your goal.

Also you can play the game under "OCD" rules. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder sets a higher standard for you to finish the levels, with almost double the number of surplus goo balls you need at the end of the final structure to qualify as having finished it under "OCD" rules. You have to really maximize every goo ball you use, pushing the structure to its very limits and depending on environmental factors to maximize your use of goo balls. Some real "out-of-the-box" thinking goes into this!

You can also upload your scores and structures to the web, and share with others. And all the surplus goo balls you collect at the end of every level is accumulated in a very large, open level where you can build pretty much anything you like. A "carte blanche" for your goo-building needs. The highest point of your structure is represented by a small whiff of cloud with your name and country on it. It bobs up and down, and rises and falls as your structure goes higher and higher, and you can compare with others.

The only very minor downside I found to this game was the menu system, before the actual game starts. It seems a bit neglected and rushed, with the bulk of developer attention going into the gameplay mechanics, no doubt. This product was delayed by almost 6 months (their interview with X-Play had them naming a release date at around Jun. 2008, and it was only released in Dec. 2008). I'm not complaining, though, because the game works where it counts: in the game. This is just a nitpick.

I'd give this game 5 stars out of 5, if I had stars to give. It costs only 20 USD, making it very cheap for the hours of fun you'll have with it.

My Ideological Pitch

I encourage people to support independent game developers, people writing great code in their backyards, people with common sense and will power to use computers to make good, wholesome magic. In a world of re-hashed first-person shooters with gratuitous guts, gore and ample bosom for pimple-faced teenage males, this is a very welcome change. We should support a good product by buying it, especially if it's made by "the little guy." I voted with my dollar on this one, and you should too!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Awami League Campaign 2008

If wishes were wings...
"If we are voted to power, we shall bring down the price of essentials, increase power generation, make education up to degree level free, give agricultural subsidies and ensure community health care facilities," Hasina said.

"Besides, more schools and colleges will be set up, allowances for freedom fighters, widows and elderly people will be doubled, fertiliser will be sold on open market and loans will be given to shrimp traders and unemployed youths," she said.

"We want to give something to the country. Give us a chance to serve you and the country. We shall build a developed Bangladesh where none will starve or live without clothes, education, housing and healthcare facilities," the former premier said.

Reality calls:

1. Bring Down the Price of Essentials

It's the economy, stupid! The world is already going into a deflationary spiral, although it probably won't last for long. They'll probably claim it as their doing, although they have no control over this. The quasi-military caretaker government also had no control over the inflation of 2007 and 2008, so it's tough for anyone to take blame either.

Whoever comes into power, though, will take credit for the deflation. Welcome to democracy!

2. Increase Power Generation

I've actually read a bit more about the planned policy changes the Awami League is looking for. This includes sanctioning new power projects as well as refurbishing old power plants. Refurbishment is, as far as my limited knowledge goes, a new promise: I've never heard any political party talk about refurbishment or the expansion of existing infrastructure in the past.

Refurbishment is not as profitable as new power plant projects. The tenders from new projects are far larger (more bang per corrupt buck, you may say), and come from outside bidders, some of who are either new to Bangladesh and so can be "educated" as to how things work here, or old players who have established contacts and can facilitate the "speed money" through established channels.

This is an understood fact of Bangladeshi government. Ask anyone in Bangladesh, and they'll give you the "don't be naive" frown.

The rallies Hasina is holding now costs money. This isn't the US where campaign donations from the masses can fund Barack Obama's 600-million-dollar campaign. Apart from key stakeholders in industry who contribute to secure their interests, the politicians invest their own money into their campaigns, and have to make this money back when they get back into power. And this can only be done through corruption.

3. Make Education Up to Degree Level Free

The taxation rate in Bangladesh is still extremely low, despite the BNP's efforts to increase the tax net (and in all fairness, they have arguably done a good job of it), and depending on loans from the ADB (which comes with the accompanying slow hemorrhaging of interest payments) or foreign aid (with its strings attached) won't cut it for long. We're aiming to become a Newly Industrialized Country by 2020, but we've shown that public spending has thus far been very irresponsible. The Annual Development Plan (ADP) has been set at more and more ambitious levels every year with double-digit year-on-year growths in ADP spending, but with consistently failing levels of implementation.

4. Agricultural Subsidies

Agricultural subsidies are the lifeblood of Bangladesh. Even the United States and the European Union are loathe to remove their agricultural subsidies, a very contentious point in the Doha Round of Free Trade Talks (what actually caused its collapse). Agricultural subsidies serve a very crucial function. This is money being invested in food, and it's a policy that's proven to work.

Whether the Awami League or the BNP comes into power, agricultural subsidies are here to stay. This is a mainstay and a staple of Bangladeshi government, and provides a crucial service to the economy.

5. More schools, colleges

The problem here isn't building the brick-and-mortar structures. The problem is in expanding the Education Ministry's capacity. Hiring more quality teachers at competitive pay rates (government wages in Bangladesh are infamously low) to attract proper talent, bringing in consultants from the private sector to train and equip these teachers, and hiring new and effective administrators and bureaucrats in the ministries to oversee these operations, that's where the challenge lies.

As an indication of the challenges ahead, the most corrupt sectors in Bangladesh are the Education and Healthcare sectors.

The education system in Bangladesh is nothing short of crumbling. One of the downsides of the fervent Bengali language movement (the "bhasha andolon") pre- and post-independence has been the overzealous banishment of English from the public sphere. Public schools today have an appalling standard of English education, which sets back most of the students from these schools significantly when competing in the global arena.

This is one of the reasons why maturing (and increasingly expensive) India is exporting its call centers to Pakistan and the Philippines (both countries with excellent standards of English), but not to Bangladesh.

Japan and Europe can afford not to adopt English, because Japan has been the world's second largest economy (until China squeezed it out very recently), and Europe has been a key player in innovation and engineering for centuries and they have a rich colonial history of theft to buoy them. Witnesses and the prime beneficiaries and drivers of the industrial revolution, they are not playing catch-up like we are. This irrational attachment to Bengali has cost us billions of dollars in potential GDP, jobs, industries and opportunities for our youth.

That being said, even in Bengali, the education system is crumbling. We are bad at being bad. Education comes to a virtual standstill after A-Levels (what we call "Intermediate"). The best schools in Bangladesh: Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, and Dhaka University, are frequently beset by political wrangling and fighting among the student chapters of the main political parties. This is affectionately and euphemistically called "session jam." 4-year degrees take 6 years to complete.

Students in university are supposed to be debating the finer points of capitalism versus socialism, or the ethical dilemmas posed by modernity to the pre-modern legal precepts of our culture. But instead, our university students fight with each other in the streets.

A university student from Dhaka University once put it to me very simply: it was either beat, or be beaten, and he wasn't about to take hits from anyone.

Professors are politically aligned and engage in partisan bickering in and out of the class. The Vice Chancellors in university are actually publicized political appointees. How do you expect an education system to function?

So building more schools is really not going to help. Deep institutional and cultural reform is needed in the education ministry.

5. Allowances for freedom fighters, widows and elderly people will be doubled

I was thinking "how would you fund this?" Well, 0 multiplied by 2 is 0, so it might not be that hard.

Freedom fighters, I think, have an allowance. A pittance though it may be, I think it hasn't been adjusted for inflation for decades, and the list of freedom fighters in Bangladesh is extremely flawed with many low-level soldiers totally omitted from the list (there have been reports in the Daily Star on this).

This has been an election promise since the 90s. We had a Bangladeshi painter back in Abu Dhabi, an elderly, hard-working chap with a very colourful personality. He cared enough about politics to actually schedule his annual leave around elections. Sheikh Hasina promised elderly benefits back then as well, and I remember him mentioning it with much skepticism and good-hearted cheer.

This must have been a good 10 to 12 years ago.

Here. Have a pinch of salt.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Outsider's Perceptions of Malaysia

I was in Malaysia for only 2 days and a night. Most of my knowledge of the country comes from the Singaporean Straits Times, an otherwise anti-Malaysian (and I would argue somewhat anti-Muslim) organization that has an agenda in showing Malaysia in a bad light.

Here's what I know: Malaysia is a former British colony, and has been independent for about 50 years or so now. Blessed with a small but steady supply of oil and gas, a steadily growing population, fertile land, and a background of mature British common law, it has evolved into a robust economy, is a regional player in South-East Asia and has a decisively Muslim identity.

Industrially, Malaysia's doing very well. It manufactures its own cars, the Proton; the engine is Japanese, but they design the chassis, assemble it, and market it under their own brand. Although the butt of many jokes, it's still something to be proud of, and reflects the industrial and entrepreneurial spirit in the country.

Politically, Malaysian democracy is beginning to show signs of maturing. The opposition party has been making in-roads despite government interference with the media and the political process. Mahathir Mohammed set the precedent for this with the Anwar Ibrahim fiasco. Not surprisingly, most of the Malaysians I spoke to about politics had a deep-rooted aversion for it. The political landscape is dominated by dirt.

Socially, their racist, pro-Malay, affirmative action policy, known as the Bhumiputra (literally, "children of the soil") laws are being publicly challenged, their vibrant ethnic minority communities of Buddhist Chinese and Hindu Indians are getting a greater voice in the goings-on of their country (and have actually allied with the hard-line Islamic groups, obviously a marriage of convenience at this point) and the ruling party coalition that has been in power unquestioningly since inception, the Barisan Nasional (BN) is showing signs of cracking. Some parties and politicians are defecting for the opposition that is running on a wave of populist support against the establishment.

But it faces lots of tricky challenges. A wave of political religious conservatism has put in jeopardy some of the freedoms ethnic minorities used to claim. A case came up on a recently deceased individual who was officially non-Muslim, but some individuals claimed he had secretly professed his Muslim faith. Though their evidence was flimsy, the case was handed over to a Shariah court, and the remains were laid to rest according to Muslim rites, much to the dismay of his family.

Recently some quarters have suggested shutting down vernacular schools, i.e., the Chinese and the Tamil schools in Malaysia, and unifying it under the dominant Malay school system. Thankfully, the ruling party disregarded it, as did the Malaysian royal family. The French can afford bigotry in the name of secularism, and the Singaporeans can afford marginalization in the name of unity, but a Muslim country doesn't have such a luxury. And in all honesty, they're all the better for it. It's the right thing to do. Diversity is a blessing.

A controversial ruling was the recent religious ban on yoga for Muslims. Something clearly silly and actually targeted toward Muslim women who were taking it up in the droves (yoga generally appeals to women more than men). The basis was that the Hindu chanting that came along with the yoga was deemed un-Islamic, although the fact of the matter is that only a minority of yoga schools do religious chanting, and these would most probably be reserved for an exclusively, or majority Hindu crowd. Religiosity in general is on the wane in the world today, and most common, everyday activities have been secularized for easy consumption by a wider audience, so I doubt this was ever really a pressing issue.

Speaking of pressing issues, where are the fatwas speaking out against poverty, denying women education, abuse, and human rights? Why is it these issues are ignored for novels and cartoons all the time?

The Malaysian flag has the distinctive red, white and blue of the American flag, with the stripes representing the states in the federation, but with the exception of an astronomically feasible depiction of the crescent and star (as opposed to the Pakistani impossibility of a star inside a moon, something many Indians get a good laugh out of).

Speaking to Malaysians, they are certainly proud of their country's achievements. Malaysians are proud of it as one of the few majority Muslim countries that have built a robust, stable infrastructure of education, healthcare, and democracy, something probably no other medium- to high-profile Muslim country can claim. And this is to the credit of the minorities within Malaysia as much as the Muslim-majority Malays.

Its national identity is a complex beast. The architecture in Malaysia is uniquely South-East Asian, while being modern, and faithful to Islamic roots. Many people have criticized the overly Islamic slant Malaysian architecture has taken, and to a limited extent I concede that. Some buildings in Putrajaya looked like pseudo baked-mud houses of North Africa or the Middle East, complete with wind towers, an innovation made for desert climes, not the tropics.

Barring a few exceptions, on the whole, it's really not so bad.

If American public architecture traces its roots to European influences, honestly I don't see why Malaysia should apologize for its Islamic-influenced architecture. A lot of it is well-integrated into the local vernacular, and they have clearly chosen it as an integral part of their national identity. All they need now is to repeal discriminatory laws against ethnic minorities.

Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant city, and full of life. Although crumbling around the edges, and like most urban centers, it has its fair share of inhospitable, uncooperative denizens. It is, however, a very well-rounded, modern city that's bustling with life, and I could imagine living there (my metric for a city I like or dislike). Anybody looking for something, no matter what it is, will probably find it.

I, for one, found their road signs very amusing, though. The Malay language has been Latinized to fit the times, having been written using the Arabic script previously (what Malays call Jawi). So taxi, for example is called "teksi." An executive cab is "teksi eksekutif." A bus is a "bas," a university is "universiti" and science is "sains." Good fun!

See the good in foreign countries, and the bad in your own. The Sufi practice of dropping a bad habit and replacing it with a good habit applies to matters of public service as well.

Malaysia looks a lot like what Bangladesh might look like, I imagine, when we become a newly industrialized country in a few decades.

And I, for one, like it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

C25K Completed!

Nailed it! (Sort of)

It took me 38 minutes, and it hurt in places it never hurt before. But I got it! Average pace of ~ 7 minutes, 30 seconds per kilometre. That's a speed of about roughly 7.9 kmph. That can certainly improve.

I started at week 3 of the C25K program, and by that standard, I ended at week 7 of the program, 2 weeks ahead of schedule!

Needless to say I didn't follow the plan to the letter, and took many liberties. At the point where I should have been on week 6, lesson 1, which is a run-walk alternation aimed at aerobic capacity building, I ran a straight 22 minutes. The week 6 goal was a 20-minute run without breaks so I was well ahead at that point.

Haven't done a run-walk alternations since. 22 minutes, then 23 minutes, and now 38 minutes.

Although I'm a day early, I'm still a dollar short, though.

The actual goal is to run 5K in 30 minutes.

That's an average velocity of 10 kmph, at about 6 minutes per kilometre. That's unprecedented for me, because my fastest pace yet has been a meagre 6 minutes 59 seconds per kilometer, roughly 8.5kmph, and I managed to keep that pace up for only 24 minutes.

I'm going to need an average pace of 10 kmph, which means every time I recoup at 8 kmph, a comfortable trot, I need to be able to go at 12 kmph for exactly the same time to make sure I can make the cut.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Apportioning Blame in the Mumbai Attacks

The dust has settled. The dead are being put to rest, and collectively, we mourn. As people start to move on, we can name our heroes, our villains, and everything in between.

The Heroes.

1. The victims.

They did no wrong, didn't ask to be heroes, and given the choice, I think they'd choose to continue with their dinners. Yet here we are. These innocent souls now join the many hundreds of thousands of victims throughout India and the world, now, and in history, who were guilty only of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And though the victims may have found peace in their eternal slumber, the emptiness they leave behind with their loved ones must be unimaginable.

I am truly sorry for their enormous loss.

2. The policemen.

They were ill-equipped, and under-trained. The gunmen had night-vision goggles, and they didn't. The gunmen had better guns, and had actually trained with their weapons, but the police didn't. They were late in getting to the scene, and they wasted the critical moments when lives could have been saved. They didn't know what to do, they didn't know the layout of the hotel, and nobody bothered to teach them or tell them.

But they went in anyway. When they were needed the most, they were there. And many of them died.

"When they lay us down to rest,
Tell our moms we done our best."

That they didn't know what to do wasn't their fault. They are, unequivocally, heroes.

3. The commandos.

The famed Indian Black Cats. They were trained, and equipped, but they were all the way in New Delhi and couldn't catch a plane because there wasn't any, and couldn't catch the ones that were available because the bureaucracy didn't account for that. But they eventually got the job done, after 60-something hours. Could it have been done sooner? Perhaps. But Indian commandos cleaned up an Indian mess, and that's something to be proud of. The Israelis, apparently, offered help, but India said they had it covered.

Arguably, they didn't have it covered. But it's good to take responsibility.

4. The people of Mumbai. They have suffered many wrongs, and yet they prod on. Like the people of Islamabad, Baghdad, Kabul, and Grozny. What else can one do. You pick up the pieces, and you move on. Common folk are incredibly resilient.

The Villains

In most cases, the hero-villain dichotomy is a false one. But these crimes were so horrific, that the perpetrators of this crime really are villains.

But what devilry is this? Suicide bombing, though I do not condone, I understand. It is the terrorist equivalent of blind rage. A lack of control in your life can lead to suicidal tendencies; it is one of the things you actually can control.

But what is it that these people have suffered that would push them to this controlled burst of terror? The gut reaction is to dismiss them as evil, and perhaps to a certain extent that's true. But most of the deeply messed up things in the world make sense to a level. This doesn't make much sense yet.

No statement was made as to what they wanted, a no-name organization was put forward, the Deccan Mujahideen, and goodness knows why they targeted Americans, Britons and Israelis if they were indeed homegrown terrorists, which the consensus is starting to suggest. What was their goal?

There's more thinking and soul-searching to be done. Questions. Questions that need answers.

These are the only two categories that (approximately) fall into the category of white and black. Right and wrong. Good and evil.

Now come the shades of grey.


India is no stranger to terrorism. They've been wrangling with it since independence, arguably before. If the Indian civil service traces its roots to the British civil service, that represents a long line of bureaucrats, administrators, and politicians that have dealt with criminal malcontents, rebels, terrorists, anarchists and freedom fighters (from an administrator's perspective, these all fall into the same basket).

And yet look at the pitiable excuse for a response. Their policemen were carrying obsolete weaponry they had previously never used before. Mumbai, a city of 13 million people, doesn't have its own commandos or national guard on stand-by. This, after a truck filled with almost a tonne of explosives laced with aluminium, blew up in the front yard of their neighbour's capital in Islamabad. You think they would have gotten the hint?

The helicopter dropping the commandos off in Nariman House circled overhead three times before dropping them off. So much for the element of surprise! It was almost a perverse comedy, like a Bollywood movie, where the hero takes down a dozen chicken-legged policemen in shorts.

Such a long history of terrorism and insurgency movements, and India still doesn't have a central terrorism database. They don't have a singular authority that handles these kinds of issues, a country with more than a billion people, and numerous separatist and insurgent movements.

In all fairness, India alone doesn't suffer from this. All the sub-continent countries display this level of incompetence. When will they realize that their laziness costs lives?

But to give India's democracy some credit, there is a tradition of taking responsibility for gross negligence. The Home Minister resigned in the face of these attacks, and I remember a few years back, a terrible railway accident sparked the resignation of the Railway Minister.

Though these resignations, strictly speaking, don't serve an immediate purpose in improving the situation, the culture of taking responsibility, at least, is there. I say at least, because it is, literally, the least, that could be done.

The terrorists hijacked a boat, took a dinghy to the shore, verbally abused fishermen on the way who asked what they were doing, walked into Mumbai, spraying bullets in the train station along the way, entered the hotels, took the time to ask people their nationalities, searched the hotel, and then kept the authorities at bay for over 60 hours. If that isn't a systemic failure at every level of the intelligence and civil defence administration, I don't know what is.

In short: the government botched this one up really bad.


Pakistan is now getting blamed for it. The Indian foreign minister, before any of the dust even settled, pointed his finger to "elements" in Pakistan. Summary: meaningless.

It's like a night guard asleep at his post hears an explosion which wakes him up, and the first thing he does upon waking is accuse the guy next to him.

People died on their watch, and they're looking for scapegoats, so obviously the last thing on their minds is their sworn responsibility as civil servants.

That being said, is Pakistan blameless? Fareed Zakaria (I'm a fan) said it in a piece soon after the bombings: Pakistan needs to stop choosing between "good terrorists" and "bad terrorists." Terrorists that destabilize India and Afghanistan are the good kind, and those that destabilize Pakistan are the bad kind.

That there are sympathetic elements within the Pakistani ISI is without a doubt. The evidence continues to mount that the attacks were staged from Pakistan. If that is the case, then the Pakistani government shoulders a sizeable burden, comparable to that of the Indian government: why weren't the terrorists on their soil stopped? The Pakistani authorities are, at best, incompetent, and at worst, complicit.

An attack of this scale does not serve any Pakistani agenda. Undermining local interests that stay out of the news media are the kind that would serve a hostile Pakistan's agenda. As the saying goes "Do not attribute to malice that which can easily be explained by stupidity."

The terrorism problem within South Asia is localized and indigenous, and the South Asian countries need to combine forces on this.

I, however, remain sceptical the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians can work together on anything.


No doubt this will push those that hate Islam and Muslims to hate them even more.

I am not a subscriber to the thought that "you cannot judge a religion by the actions of its followers." No, you can, you should, and everyone does.

But Muslims died in these attacks. Muslims have died in almost every major terorrist attack by Muslim extremists, and pretty much all of the minor ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the major perpetrators of terrorism (the Buddhists are a distant second in the religious extremism rankings), Muslims account for most of its victims by number. Mind you, this includes the "collateral damage" suffered by Muslims during coalition air raids.

If you count the casualties in the "War on Terror" (which for all intents and purposes basically means Afghanistan and Iraq), Muslim civilian and combatant casualties outnumber any other casualties in these conflicts, be they civilian, Indian, Israeli, American, or coalition forces. Be they casualties in the numerous suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, New York, Mumbai, or Madrid.

So we suffer as much if not more than anyone else does, it's just that when an Afghan or Iraqi civilian dies, or a Pakistani or an Arab, their government usually lacks the organization, infrastructure, news agencies, public relations apparatus, or diplomatic and political will to make an issue out of it.

In every one of the BBC articles on the Mumbai attacks, they've listed the dead. And at the very end, they take by name the single Briton that died. It's an honourable thing to do, to look out for your own.

Since most Muslim countries are poor and under-developed, our dead don't have a public voice. We bury our numerous, uncounted, innocent dead in Chechnya, the Gaza Strip, and Somalia privately, and the Earth is soaked in our tears. And neither our own governments, nor other governments look to see our pain.

Why don't people realize that our suffering and our grievances is the world's suffering too? It's only when people get pushed to the very brink, when they lose their humanity and like a child, break the vase to get some attention, does the world look at us. With a frown of irritation on its face. Like it would be so much easier if we all just... disappeared.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Wait A Minute...

Muslims are not a single, monolithic entity. Muslims in America are different from Muslims in the UK, who are different from Muslims in India. That there may be some elements shared within common extremist ideologies does not mean that Muslims in general are a problem case.

The Muslim faith's enduring egalitarianism allows for a Muslim in the Philippines to feel for his brother in Palestine, but that does not mean we speak with one voice.

With the exception of a few high-profile cases, the United States is largely immune from the scourge of indigenous Muslim extremism. The Muslim diaspora in the United States (and North America) is among the most well-settled, integrated, and successful of all the Muslim diaspora in the world.

Muslims in Europe have their own grievances by way of Europe's collective social backwardness in integrating immigrant populations into the common fold. That has nothing to do with Islam, but the root problems are socio-economic.

Europe for all its progressiveness has never had an indigenous, enduring Muslim population from pre-modern times. All Muslims in Europe today are modern immigrants. In the Middle East, there are still native Jews and Christians, descendants from the time of the Prophets of yore. This is an indicator of Europe's history of integration.

In Palestine, large swathes of Muslims have been living in refugee camps for generations now, internally displaced, without an identity, continuously intimidated by the Israelis, neglected by the Arabs and the Palestinian Authority, and unwanted everywhere.

Everyone has their problems. Yes, religion may be a catalyst in the process of radicalizing people, once you've hammered into their brains that the gardens of paradise are worth whatever political agenda you may be preaching. But I'm a Muslim, and technically, I'm looking forward to the same gardens as many of the suicide bombers. But I'm not rushing to do anything untoward.

These people are hopeless, and uneducated, and many have lost their families, their dignity, and have nothing to live for. Hate the sin, not the sinner. We have to pull these people out of that rut. If for nothing else, than to save our own skins.

Every region which finds terrorism as an intractable problem is riddled with poverty, corruption, instability, lack of education, and general hopelessness. Palestine. Afghanistan. Sudan.

And let me be clear: As a Muslim, I have nothing to apologize for because the perpetrators were Muslim. I condemn their attacks along with the rest of the world. By saying "Muslims need to speak out more" that's indirectly casting some of the blame of these terrorists on me. I share none of the blame of any of these terrorists, and I never will be. I am not of them, and they are not of me.

But to have a clear conscience and to actually try to identify how to solve the problem, I have to note that the root problem of a lot of terrorism lies within political solutions to non-fictional grievances in Kashmir, Palestine, and Africa. I'm not condoning violence by highlighting the shades of grey, but I'm looking at the root cause as well as the symptoms. Shouldn't everyone be doing that?

By using a faith as a scapegoat, we're not addressing the problem. It is dismissive, and a disservice to the issue. The problem lies within people, and within people lies the solution.

To the Muslims: there's an African saying, "A fool at forty, is a fool for ever." Most post-colonial Muslim countries are nearing 40, it's about time they started to show some progress, because very soon, blaming the thieving white people of half a century ago just isn't going to cut it.

Good governance, education, healthcare, a good economy, free speech. And terrorism will become a much more manageable problem.

Ask a bum in New York (someone who is arguably good-for-nothing and reasonably hopeless) to blow himself up. You think he'll do it? No, because he knows he's not just a bum, but he's a bum in New York, man. He shares in that pride. Don't underestimate the poor and the hopeless. They're very aware of their surroundings.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mumbai Blasts

The time to soul-search and apportion blame will come. Now, we must stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in India, for they have suffered a deep and grievous wrong.

First, we must wash our dead, and lay them to rest.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Layman's Perspective: Lolitics in Bangladesh

Looking at it at face value, we've had a handful of leaders over the years. H.M. Ershad (who was a president), K. Zia, S. Hasina, (who were prime ministers) and now F. Ahmed (who is a chief adviser; not a politician, but a bureaucrat).

Personally, I will look upon the 2 years of F. Ahmed's premiership with somewhat fond memories. Okay, not exactly fond, but memories accompanied with less dread. He brought some measure of control back to a country on the brink of losing it, he managed a powerful cyclone excellently (just look at how a comparable cyclone that hit Myanmar a few months later caused human suffering an order of magnitude higher than Bangladesh's), coordinated a nation-wide food response which helped the people of Bangladesh cope with hunger where other countries at a similar level of development (like Haiti or Pakistan) suffered much more than we did. And he was erudite, and spoke good English.

K. Zia speaks terrible English, and somewhat faltering Bengali. More seriously, though, she has no personal credentials apart from being the wife of a former dictator (who engaged in wanton political assassinations during his regime and then was eventually assassinated himself). She is only barely educated, and that may be okay for the United States of America, but it shouldn't be for us! (Okay, after suffering 8 years of Dubya, we have a right to poke fun at this. Electing Barack doesn't exonerate you people all of a sudden!)

S. Hasina, though, goes around as an opposition party leader around the world, to the United States, and accuses the incumbents of terrorism. This reflects the psychology of Bangladeshi politics: whatever it takes to win, even if it means blackening the name of your country to others. Even as an opposition party leader, you're still representing Bangladesh when you go abroad. She, however, didn't get the memo.

In all fairness, though, the BNP-Jamaat alliance has engaged in terrorism. And S. Hasina has been a victim of them. The 5-year BNP-Jamaat term has set a dangerous precedent for subsequent elected governments: winning an election gives you the right to attempt to systematically eradicate the opposition.

These two women, though, are two sides of the same coin. In all their time in power, they've enacted many laws for the protection of women's rights, but very little by way of real empowerment has come to women. A woman construction worker, today, in Bangladesh, earns half what a man earns. For the same, back-breaking work.

Acid attacks continue, and very little by way of resolution of these cases ever occur in courts, with few proper public trials to serve as proper deterrents, although these cases cannot be that difficult to solve. The friends of the perpetrators would no doubt be privy to the details of the relationship between the young lady and the criminal in question. We're a country of romantics, after all. It's all poetry, flowers, hugs and kisses until the aqueous hydrogen-sulfate hits the wall.

In the three terms these two women have exchanged the seat of power, the issue of young beggar girls in the streets of Dhaka, sexually, physically, emotionally abused by callous passers-by, by drug-peddlers, by the elements of the variable summer-winter weather, have all largely been ignored.

The last time I went to Bangladesh, I saw with my very own eyes a young girl carrying a baby in a posture in which any other baby would not be able to keep quiet, much less sleep. It was very obviously drugged to sleep, begging in the streets. In the rain. And these two women have done nothing for them.

So we may be able to claim that we elected a woman as a premiere, but it's really not done much at all for people on the ground.

F. Ahmed, on the other hand, is well-spoken and very presentable, but he sounds like an autocrat in all his speeches abroad, by highlighting the pitfalls of an "imperfect union" like his address at the UN General Assembly last year. I think he's a little bit flustered at the negative response of a military-backed caretaker government having to take power in Bangladesh, so when he is abroad, his agenda is dominated by why the military has to settle matters in a country that has been making inroads in consistent civilian rule. All the Western countries collectively went *gasp* when the civilians couldn't settle the issues amicably. But that's not his fault. Politically-speaking, nothing is ever his fault; he's a career bureaucrat, for goodness sake, and he wasn't elected. He deserves some slack, and although he has decidedly underperformed, he has been less bad than the others.

Even a shallow analysis will give the following grade to Bangladeshi politics: fail. This "state of emergency" is the longest running imposition of martial law in a South Asian country since partition. It's unacceptable, but it's not the CTG's (Caretake Government) fault. It's S. Hasina's fault, and K. Zia's fault, because they were too busy inciting riots and fixing elections, that the military had to take over. They were only filling a vacuum created by the incompetent civilians. The CTG has been a force of stability in some ways, like how the Taleban was before they got bombed back to the Stone Age. Not exactly an ideal solution, but at least you can go to and from work to feed the family.

But we really do take things too personally in the sub-continent (and Asia in general). If an employee hands in his resignation, it's all cuss words and "you ingrate" and "how could you stab me in the back." Seriously, boss. It's nothing personal, this is just business. After these politicians cuss each other up in parliament, they should be able to go home, chillax with their families and watch Bohu Brihi. But no, they're in this fight to annihilate each other with ridiculous ideological banter and hyperbole.

Our devotion to our political parties is almost religious, anybody that changes parties is labeled a turncoat, an unacceptable apostasy. Well, I think for a democracy to function, the electorate has to be swingers. It's like Keynes famously noted (roughly paraphrased): "If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

W's worldview is wrong. (paraphrased) "This is a president that believes on Wednesday, what he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday," said Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner. We need to foster more rational thought in our country, through education and free speech. And then, perhaps, we will be able to achieve "a more perfect union."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

C25K Runner's Program

C25K means Couch Potato '2' 5 Kilometres. It's a program of gradually increasing the endurance of a couch potato (comparable to the endurance of just a potato) to the level of a normal adult Homo sapien: able to run either 5 kilometres or for a half hour, at a stretch, without a break.

I started from week 3 because I'm about 2 weeks fitter than a couch potato. Oh yeah, I'm ripped!

So I Google'ed around for blogs of people who have done the C25K program. None of them go beyond 4 weeks. I think, oh, one of them ended at Week 6. Not a good sign at all, I don't think. Well, here I am telling you. I am now on week 4, week 3 was too easy (I'm ripped!).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bangladeshi Election Turmoil

The Bangladesh National Party's (BNP) 4-Party Alliance is making a list of 4 demands of the Election Commission (EC). In summary, they are:

1. Lift the State of Emergency
2. Remove some clauses in the amended Representation of the People Order (RPO)
3. Defer Upazila (municipal) elections for a month after the parliamentary polls
4. Reschedule polls to ensure Hajis can cast their votes

Lift the State of Emergency

This makes sense and warrants consideration, and the Caretaker Government is already considering this. The Caretaker Government has reason to be skeptical. The two parties have a penchant for street protests that turn ugly very frequently, and none of these parties have signed off on any common agreement to stop economically disruptive protests (hartal). But an election under what is effectively martial law isn't exactly what I would call ideal.

The State of Emergency has been a Godsend for these 2 years for many people on the ground. The streets haven't been all that much safer, and although the military has come in with its fair share of heavy-handedness, businesses have generally functioned without let or hindrance. Perhaps I'm damning it with faint praise but it could've been a lot worse.

Remove some clauses in the amended RPO

The RPO, first enacted in 1972 is generally a good piece of legislation from what I understand. The legislators from our "founding fathers" were a competent bunch, from the rich tradition of the Pakistan Civil Service and before that, the British Civil Service. 3 parliamentary elections have been held under it so far, as well as a few military dictatorships thrown into the mix (we are a sub-continental country, after all). And some of the amendments made to it this year by the Caretaker Government have also been good, like barring anyone who hasn't paid their utility bills from contesting (you'd think that was obvious).

But as usual, the military's heavy-handedness has to eventually cut through. It's like they get a sense that they're doing well, then suddenly get over-enthusiastic and overshoot. I'm fuzzy on the details here, but it seems like they've added a clause barring teachers from running for public office. I think their intention may be to separate the universities from politics, but this policy sounds heavy-handed (my favorite word for this post).

Let's not forget, the Caretaker Government was the one that tried to put price controls in the telecommunication industry, probably the only sector in Bangladesh that is working perfectly well and serving the population for the collective good, under free-market capitalism.

Defer Municipal Elections for a Month after Parliamentary Polls

I'm not exactly sure as to the reasoning for this, but it's possible they're trying not to over-extend the Election Commission. But with proper management it's possible to vote on more than one thing at a time. Americans in the recent presidential elections very controversially voted for a black president, and voted against gay marriage rights, among other things. This was all on the same ballot.

The big caveat here is that it needs organization and management.

Reschedule Polls to Ensure Hajis Can Cast Their Votes

This is simply preposterous. The BNP and her Jamaat allies have become masters at playing the religion card.

There are no more than 50,000 pilgrims going on the Hajj from Bangladesh according to revised, lower Saudi quotas this year for Bangladeshis. Out of an approximately 80 million-strong voter roll. That's 0.06% of the electorate, and that fraction is probably smaller when you factor in voter turnout.

If their vote is so crucial (which I don't think it is), then the 4-party alliance should have raised this before. After all, we've known elections would be held at the end of 2008 for more than 18 months now. The Election Commission would have evaluated accepting absentee ballots (something I would very much like) for the pilgrims, in that case. If we don't have the capacity to handle absentee ballots, which the Election Commission has already announced, then I don't see a way out.

I don't think this request should be entertained. But then, what do I know about politics in a country I never lived in. The BNP is a monolith in the political landscape, outsized only by its counterpart, the Awami League. If they sneeze, everybody gets wet.


About Me

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)