Monday, October 30, 2006

In the era of Cricket Jockeys

My earliest memories of watching cricket on television are of Australia lifting the World Cup in 1987 and a young strapping lad called Sachin hammering veteran leg spinner Abdul Qadir across the park in Pakistan in 1989. We had messers Dr Narottam Puri and Anupam Gulati as the commentators in those days – with their dull, dry flaccid bored to death voices, almost straight out of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan movie. And then, you had the likes of Sushil Doshi in Hindi with melodramatic moments of commentary like "Tendulkar ne tenduye ki tarah lapka". Commentary was incidental to the game; the action was only out in the middle.

The 1992 World Cup changed things a lot, for a viewer, as we saw Richie Benaud , Bill Lawry and members of their ilk crooning into the microphones and creating a niche for themselves. We were exposed to pyjama cricket and Channel 9’s innovations which made us realize that there was more to the game than the 22 players and 2 umpires on the ground. Dull presentations in the studios were replaced by interesting pre and post-match analysis with weather forecasts, predictions, viewer polls and pitch reports. The usage of stump cameras, coloured clothing, third umpires etc. and statistical measures (though Mohandas Menon continues to be the most reliable source) made the game more popular and helped in creating cricket experts amongst common people.

The 1996 World Cup witnessed a lot of ex-cricketers crowding the commentary box, especially with a plethora of channels waiting to pick up some ‘expert’ or the other. In many ways, the Wills World Cup was a broadcasting blockbuster and the BCCI was never the same again. Media rights and advertising now held greater premium and the game and the players finally started prospering economically even though there was no substantial increase in the playing strength across the world.

Commentators also became celebrities and so you had new guys jumping on to the band wagon. Remember the unsavoury Shaz and Waz show on ESPN-Star, which featured two middle aged commentators, flirting with babes, selected through SMS polls. Navjot Singh Siddhu became a pop star mouthing inane thoughts and testing the elasticity of the English language until one fine day, he crossed the barrier and was quietly shown the door, much to our relief. There were misfits like Kapil Dev, Saba Karim and others who made their exits from commentary panels fast enough but still did enough to remain in the studios.

With Zee and “Deewana Bana Dey” Sony Max entering cricket broadcast, we now have television anchors masquerading as sports presenters and reducing it to another form of Bollywood tamasha. But it was the 2003 World Cup, I think, that saw entertainment entering the game forcefully in the form of Ms.Mandira Bedi who has done more than the Tarun Tahilianis and Ritu Beris in spreading fashion consciousness through her infamous “noodle straps”. She earned a lot of ridicule with her strappy presence but then the marketing guys were happy that she managed to swing in non-fans of the game also. Some smart MBA’s idea of attracting women to the game but with 22 men sweating it out on the field, Mandira and Ruby Bhatia would be poor choices, surely.

Circa 2006, witness Mandira Bedi squirming and shrieking while referring to Abhishek Bachchan and Charu Sharma (whose fast receding hairline has gained more footage than his comments), blushing referring to Ash. Of course, she's been a bit more circumspect in her dressing sense this time(Sadly, for many of us).With luminaries like Boycott and Barry Richards taking a back seat in these events, it has become a free for all for these jockeys who have been mercilessly dumping us their humble pearls of wisdom. The horror undergone by the transition from watching Harsha Bhogle and John Dykes to Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy cannot be matched by even readers of The Hindu forced to read the Deccan Chronicle. And then you have tarot reading, actors talking about their movies and you wonder what's going on? Where is the post-match analysis that ESPN-Star brought to the game??

The simple pleasure of watching the game, the replays and listening to the comments of commentators is now a luxury in the hands of these channels. With ads available at every possible break, it’s become a case of watching the game in the midst of all the ads. The last ball or first ball disappears from the screen and the channel makes a few lakhs. The advertiser is happy, the channel is happy while the viewer remains the passive spectator who has no say. Treating sports as yet another Bollywood masala saga may be tempting to channels but forgetting the legions of serious cricket fans and subjecting them to all this trash is quite unbecoming.

The marriage of Bollywood and cricket – the 2 most marketable products in India- is a great idea per-se but it must be treaded carefully so that it does not spill over into a comic vaudeville which is what it has become now. Cricket can sustain itself without wonderful bimbettes outdoing each other in “exposing” themselves (exposing their knowledge). With off-screen entertainment in the form of Warne’s (s)exploits with his balls, Shoaib’s drug antics and Hair’s tantrums, cricket has all the masala to sustain itself, so does it need the female quotient ( with exceptions like Donna Symonds, of course)?

Any day, give me the likes of Harsha Bhogle, Boycott, Ian Chappell, Sunny Gavaskar, Mark Nicholas, Tony Greig and a few others sitting out there and I am hooked on to the TV – straps or no straps. It's a big Thumbs Down to the Set Max brand of commentary...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Singapore Diary – Part 3

A few days left before I am back in India and so my smileometer is beaming high signals in the midst of hazy Singapore skies (an annual haze in this part of the year caused by forest fires in Sumatra). A sign of confused times when you make money but wonder what exactly you want to do in life and is it worth troubling your mind but satisfying your pocket. As I ponder over this question and ask myself how much I can take all this, I decide to tread the conformist path of doing nothing but journeying along till you are forced to take up the less trodden path.

A vegetarian’s life is a difficult one outside India. Wherever I go, I find the meat of some animal or the other ornately decorated and put up for sale but very few restaurants catering to the needs of a herbivore like me (Fellow Indians think it blasphemous for a Keralite to even be a vegetarian). Since I stay in a predominantly Indian environment in Singapore, its fine but otherwise it can be a tough choice. Vegetables are at a pretty low priority here.

India is quite inclusive when it comes to such eating habits as it serves both the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian palate. I find it both amusing and outright crazy when I see a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Singapore Zoo. How can a zoo which is meant to be a home for animals be a place for serving them hot? Of course, it may be a case of forward integration for the zoo!!!

I am shocked (an understatement) when I am told that it is a govt. policy that birds are not allowed into the city limits. Not allowed??? There are, supposedly, shooting squads to ensure this compliance. I cannot confirm the veracity of such a law/policy in force but honestly, I have never seen a bird here and the closest I have come to, is reading, in The Strait Times, of bird droppings being a menace for poor car owners. This would have been funny if not an example of insensitivity of the state towards anything that does not derive economic value.

We forget very conveniently that buildings and malls cannot substitute the beauty of nature and that co-habitation is the key to a greater and more fulfilling existence. Imagine a day when future generations here do not know what animals are and have to visit museums to see their remnants.

The Government plays an important role in the lives of people through the usage of subsidies. It taxes private transport and subsidizes the public transportation and housing sector. The railway tariffs are capped at a maximum value of about 3 Singapore dollars for a trip to encourage greater usage of the MRT. The surcharge on cars to increase the purchase and ownership costs (as mentioned previously), tolling on high congestion spots at peak hours (using Electronic Road Pricing) and Area Licensing Scheme (restricted zones in business areas) have eased the traffic which is fairly dense at peak hours. It has developed a system which even the Americans have tried to emulate but have not been able to do so far.

Urban development has not been given due importance in India and it is worthwhile for us to consider measures to reduce the movement of cars in cities and boost public transportation, like in London or Curitiba (in Brazil, considered as one of the best examples of urban development). Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities are all aiming to be Shanghai but they are all slowly choking and require urgent measures to get them back on track.

In the housing segment, there are two types of flats here – HDB (Housing Development Board) and Condors. The Govt. constructs and sells/leases out HDBs at lower than market rates and this serves a substantial portion of Singapore’s housing needs. Condors are private flats and are more elitist in nature. This is another example of the Govt.’s presence in a very commercial business which may be scoffed by believers of laissez faire.

A massive urban renewal programme which began in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of all slums with these housing units. The Govt. of that time required that a percentage of everyone’s wages be placed in a forced retirement account or be used to purchase a residence which resulted in everyone owning a property in the country. Slums and displacement is another serious issue that we face in India and there needs to be a further debate on how we address that issue.

Democracy is a virtue that we do not necessarily celebrate because we take it for granted. This is alien to Singapore but they do not mind it – probably a frog in the well syndrome. Singapore’s First Premier and principal architect, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, believes that democracy is a primarily Western concept and not necessarily required for Asia and so they should not be judged on this yardstick. This has found its echo in various Asian countries with China, Malaysia and a few others endorsing this opinion. He had famously stated in a newspaper interview :

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.

But as an Indian who sees and cherishes the ideals of a free world, I do not subscribe to this thought process. Economic freedom without political freedom is a very superficial freedom, something that has earned Singapore the dubious name of a “nanny state”. Policies like excessive fines, tax reliefs for sterilization, compulsory saving schemes, strong censorship and archaic draconian laws have diminished its position in terms of human rights but it's principle has been Greater Capitalism for Socialism, dubbed by Singapore University scholars as "meritocratic,elitist,Confucianist, bureaucratic state". The principle seems to work fine currently and the people are very much in favour of it but can it sustain in the long run??? Let's wait and watch.....

Tail piece: You would be surprised to know that chewing gum was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2004) when the US Govt. negotiated, alongside the active lobbying of gum maker Wrigley’s, with the Singapore government for the lifting of the ban. Sticking of the gum in train doors and other public places was leading to a public nuisance, so the ban was imposed. Even now it is available here only in drugstores and that too on prescription!!!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pyongyang Joins the Party

Imagine an exclusive executive club where a select group of powerful influential persons are members. These members enjoy rights denied to ordinary denizens and have a constitution which seeks to ensure that the club remains as elitist as possible. Their actions are highly questionable but they shroud it in morally hypocritical arguments of the greater good and preach the same to non-members. Persons who try to intrude are penalized and given stiff punishments so that the club maintains its status quo position. But there are always crazy plebeians who still manage to gatecrash bypassing the laws, something that represents North Korea’s entry into the World Nuclear Club.

North Korea had always been threatening to go the nuclear way (it withdrew from the NPT in 2003) and it was a more a question of when rather than if and so it did not surprise anybody except for a few news channels who had to feign surprise to give it that breaking news effect. For a number of years, the nuclear world was dominated by five countries who entrusted to themselves the task of protecting their existence and by extension, the world, till one fine day, two countries decided to no longer play ball. Pokharan and Chagai Hills pushed India and Pakistan into this club and now, North Korea has followed suit. Now there are renewed fears that Iran too would test the bomb.

Pyongyang going nuclear reveals a few things. It diminishes China’s assumed ability to leverage its relationship with North Korea and also undermines President Bush’s attempts to threaten it in terms of embargos. For countries to condemn it (including India) saying it threatens regional stability is a classic case of hypocrisy. But then, that’s a naive argument in the world of real politicking.

Even a militarily-passive Japan, which has always used the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to convey the sense of loss and destruction that nuclear weapons can bring, is under the US nuclear umbrella and so they can preach peace. Non-proliferation as a tool has not worked for more than half a century and is not expected to bring in any new dividends. What is required is a clear elimination of nuclear weapons and not reduction.

I was amongst the many jubilant voices in India when we went ahead with our Pokharan spectacle. There was this jingoistic feeling of having cocked a snook at the world-the Yankees could not stop us and now we are the super powers etc. But now, as the adrenaline levels have gone down and “Shining India” is almost a dirty word, I wonder what we achieved by going nuclear, except maybe an exaggerated sense of national pride for a few days (Of course, with exceptions like my Andhraite neighbour who was unhappy that the tests would lead to the cancellation of his son’s US visa). Does the theory of nuclear deterrence actually work? I don’t think so. The tests gave us a false sense of pride, a feeling that we are major players in the world and that the world will now listen to us. It probably does listen in many forums but that is due to our market size rather than our arsenals (Poor Shashi Tharoor is a casualty of that belief).

For a country like North Korea that stands almost at the bottom of the bottom of the economic pyramid in the world and has scores of people dying due to natural and state-sponsored schemes of disaster, you would wonder what nuclear weapons could do. Our knowledge about the country is quite limited because North Korea does not publish statistics (their own economists have no idea what their inflation rate is) except that it has the fifth largest military in the world, with the largest percentage of citizens enlisted. Maybe it gives them a sense of pride but since media is not given a proper access to the public domain; we do not even know that.

At a larger level, Kim Jong - II will leave North Korea a poorer country where hunger is fed by patriotic talk and Western phobias. Do the people have a future to look towards? A country that is so poor but believes that nuclearization will help it. Maybe, but from whom?? Let me quote the words of The XIVth Dalai Lama here which conveys all this and so much more:

Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.

Such countries will probably perish under the might of their own contradictions and burdens in the long run. As Amartya Sen discusses in his article on Democracy, a democratic state with a free press ushers in a certain amount of administerial responsibility because of the constant focus of the media on it. He successfully argues how a democratic state can ensure that there are no famines and droughts, something that Pyongyang needs to realize.

Nuclearization is a greater political decision than a military one. For starters, we do not even know whether they actually conducted the test successfully, as being alleged in certain quarters. Suddenly, there are talks of South Korea and Japan reconsidering their proliferation options because they feel threatened in the presence of a nuclear neighbour. The nuclear issue has also whipped up a great deal of passion in the forthcoming US Senate polls with the Democrats alleging that the North Korea going nuclear is an example of the failure of Bush’s much vaunted diplomacy.

The Americans have threatened to impose fresh sanctions but will it help? History shows it has never done anyone any good except possibly companies that act as intermediaries (Food for Oil Program types). The recent Iraq experience has shown them to be a total failure but then since constructive diplomacy has never been the most common means of working, the same old strategy will continue. In retrospect, we know that Iraq did not have the alleged nuclear stockpiles but if it had, would history have been different? Did this influence North Korea when it decided to go nuclear?

What drives nations to nuclearization? Maybe a false sense of machismo- the chest beating and fist thumping variety where you cannot offer anything to your people and so camouflage it using false arguments of self-pride, deterrence and defence. Ask the average North Korean the significance of this (assuming one day you can see him expressing his views) and his blank face would convey all that peace activists have been trying to bandy about. Do I sound naive or foolish when I advocate peace? Maybe but I believe that the world can only survive with the philosophy of peace and not the politics of non-deterrence ballistics.

I end my post by quoting the renowned French philosopher Albert Camus’s famous words that rings so true:

Peace is the only battle worth waging

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Singapore Diary - Part 2

The second week starts and my office work increases. I do not perform anything earth shaking except a lot of Control C- Control V job in the last few days, mostly not even aware of what is happening but hey, my targets are achieved by this simple movement of my two hands. That’s all work life has become – a monotonous drole which pays you, to show off to your peers. Stop cribbing I tell myself but then Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin and so I log in and decide to do a bit of my blogging work again – a necessary outlet for my incessantly wavering mind.

We plan to go to a place called Sentossa but the rain gods play spoil sport and we reschedule our tour itinerary to travel to a couple of museums in Jurong East. It’s all child’s play out there and we get bored pretty quickly though I manage to capture an IMAX viewing of “Mars Travel”. But the good thing is that I see industries in this part of the world and travel by the bus for the first time. The railway pass I had bought can be used in the bus (called LRT here) also. That’s nice; I had heard of plans of a similar integrated multi-transport system in India(useful info available in the Indian Economy Blog) also but wonder what happened to it.

I am not the most active temple goer while in India but I decide to check out a temple in this island city. And so here, I am in front of Sri VeeramaKaliamman Temple, next to Veerasamy Road in Little India. It’s a busy Saturday evening and lots of people around but it feels reasonably good. I have doubts if I can use my camera inside but I see a few Europeans taking photos, so I enter. Seeing me, a Japanese tourist (he reminds me of the tourist in Munnabhai MBBS) asks me in gestures if I can get his snap taken in front of the temple. I oblige hoping to get the favour returned .He's, however, not too pleased with my photography skills in my first two shots but settles on my third attempt . He’s satisfied and leaves but I forget to get my photo taken.

As I step out of the temple, I hear "Apadi Poddu Poddu" from one of the hotels. I take a walk around and realize that there’s not a single non-Indian store in the place (99% Tamil). You’d think I may as well be in Coimbatore as I see Ananda Bhavan, Komalas, Meenas and many other such hotels. A North Indian could be equally bewildered as a Westerner seeing Tamil sprayed around in such quantity.

I am allowed taxi travel as per company norms but I decide to hitch train rides daily rather than go by the cab. One reason is my nostalgia associated with Mumbai and its train travel, though they are not comparable in the actual sense. Secondly, I feel that one of the best ways to know the people of a place is to travel in the most common mode of transport there. Not that I make a great job at it (which I realize later) as I stand in the train staring at the people while most of them are hooked to ipods and lost in their own world.

(View inside the Singapore MRT-Local Train)

Nevertheless, I buy a pass (an EZ-Link Magnetic Card) and load it with 30 Singapore dollars and proceed. You swipe the ticket at a fare gate while entering a station and swipe out at another at the place you get out and the fare is deducted for the distance covered. The amount of travel inside the stations is much more than the actual journey which is a dampener at times but then since some exercise has also to be factored in, I’m ok with that option.

One first hand observation I have is of the work culture prevalent here. It is something similar to India in terms of people working for long hours. The few Europeans I see here are more inclined to visit the evening pubs or maybe dash home unlike our hardworking Singaporean. I guess it’s not just an Indian mentality; an Asian work style though not as difficult as the Japanese culture of workaholism. With no girlfriends in store and no inclination towards bars, I decide I may as well be a part of this brigade which sits late (not necessarily office work though). The MBA in me of course makes me think - Good market for stress counselors, gyms, alternative lifestyles etc.???

I am told by one of my colleagues that the Maruti Swift which is modestly priced (ok, not modest for most of us) in India at about Rs 4-5 lakh is available at about Rs 18 lakhs here and that’s the Maruti 800 equivalent gaadi here. I am shocked at this apparently huge price difference but apparently, this is part of Government policy to curb the number of private vehicles on the roads to avoid traffic congestion. Interesting, isn’t it?

It brings to focus the larger question at stake – the role of governments in Free markets. Should governments allow markets to dictate terms by following a policy of laissez faire or be an interventionist keeping the larger picture in mind? Are free markets truly free or do they breed crony capitalism? I’ll not debate that at least in this post but would like to discuss this in detail later in some other post.

Even at the risk of being dismissed as a cliche, I’d like to reiterate that you can take the Mallu out of politics but not the politics out of a Mallu. So, I look around the place scanning for some political banners, forums or any other symbols of politics in Singapore. But I struggle to find any such demonstrative political paraphernalia around unlike in India, where we are all members (active or passive) of a larger political act.

I must confess that I do not ask Singaporeans themselves about it but go by what I see around which is not a very scientific way of drawing conclusions. But then the politics of a place can be felt in the air and the remarkable absence of it is a discerning factor (at least to me). So, I turn to my old faithful Google to find out more and realise that this is a one party democracy (???).Time to revisit my understanding of democracy???

I'm running out of time;I better stop.Will continue the discussion on the economic and political style in the next post……………