Saturday 3 October 2009


“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.” - Mohandas K. Gandhi

Whenever I come to Singapore, if it is Sunday, I am always amazed by the large numbers of Filipinas that congregate on Orchard Road (after morning mass is over, of course). Most of them work here as maids, cleaners and service staff. They flock towards Lucky Plaza and rush to the upper floors where the money remittance offices are. They queue there for a long time until their turn comes and then they can send some money to their families back home. They wear their Sunday best and they smile, chatter to each other and dream. They queue again at the internet outlets where they can cheaply talk with their relatives over Skype. Then they can go and have a cheap meal with their friends or even a picnic lunch on one of the sidewalks in the streets off Orchard Rd, for which they get their comstibles in the cheap Filipino shops. And so it was today also…

They flocked around me as I walked down Orchard Rd, their happy voices twittering like the songs of tropical birds, their smiling faces full of Sunday happiness. Their day of rest dedicated to their family and their fellow Filipinas here in Singapore. The outing providing them with the opportunity to talk their language, share their stories, alleviate their homesickness, share a smile. I’ve heard that many of them have to work long hours for low wages and even have to cope with bad working conditions and perhaps even a cruel boss. The Filipina maid here in Singapore is an expendable commodity and if the one you have is not what you are looking for, there are many others willing to take her place. The placement agencies (many in Lucky Plaza once again) have hundreds of advertisements, photos upon photos of available service staff. To be placed in a household attracts a hefty fee for the agent, which the worker has to pay.

The same goes for Indonesians, Indians, other SE Asians who wish to come to Singapore and work, taking advantage of the buoyant economy. Indian workers are willing to be shipped here and work in construction sites and willing to pay their first 6-12 months of wages to the agent that places them. In return they get dormitory space to sleep in and their meals. If they then stay on, they will get the money in their pockets to send back home… One sees them by the truckload early every morning being taken to the site and returning late in the evening.

The haves and the have nots. The struggle for survival versus the greed of the rapacious egotistical society that rewards avarice and the search for status and endless luxury. The riches of our century are unimaginable, but the prices is that poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. Poverty in times before was the result of natural scarcity, however, nowadays poverty is the result of a set of priorities dictated by the rich. The modern poor are written off as rubbish. Our consumer economy views the poor with disdain and ignores them as no-hopers, idlers and as those who fail to take the opportunities given to them. They are not indeed social entrepreneurs as the conference I attended concluded…


"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live." - George Bernard Shaw

Today was the last day of the conference and as I attended all three days I was considering by the end of today what the conference achieved, what I learnt and also what I could do on my return home. As is the case with such conferences, there are a lot of very clever people present and many fantastic ideas are vocalised. There are visionaries and impassioned idealists, some socialist and altruistic social reformers, but also there those who are vain and self-centred, and of course there are the hypocrites and the opportunists.

Dr Ting Choon Meng is a local Singaporean who has developed an innovative monitoring wristwatch that is used to record cardiac parameters on a 24-hour basis in patients with heart disease (with great commercial success). It has saved the life of many people who are under increased threat of stroke and heart attack. He was one of the panellists in one of today’s sessions and he related a story of a Chinese man who lived in a remote part of China. This man for the last 40 years had carried out a job that he felt was essential for this community. He lived in a village, which several decades ago had become bisected in two because of geological upheavals and the re-coursing of a river through the middle of it. As the two halves of the village became separated by the river, this man sold his house, bought a boat and became the ferryman for the village. He demanded no payment for the job and he survived completely on his fellow-villagers’ contributions to his daily needs in terms of food, clothing, etc. Quid pro quo. Dr Ting gave this as an example of an individual being someone who responded to a social need by innovating and resolving a problem in the community, all for the social good.

I was thinking about that all day, especially in the context of what had transpired over the last three days of the conference. This ferryman was certainly an altruist and maybe even a socialist, but he was certainly not a “social entrepreneur”, which was what the conference was about. Had he been one, he would have sold his house, asked for more money from the villagers (his backers) and he would constructed a bridge to span the river. He would have charged a toll every time someone crossed it and in time not only recovered the initial capital, but also made a profit – while at the same time responding to the social need…

I then reconsidered the substance of the conference. Most of the attendees were very much capitalists. They were industrialists and bankers, company directors, CEOs of multinational companies. They were relating their experiences following an “epiphany” they had had regarding sustainability and environmental care, social reform. The classic case was Rob Walton the heir of the “Walmart” fortune. He related how he spearheaded the “greening” of his company and how suddenly, Walmart became a company with an environmental and social conscience. This is of course was in response to a huge public outcry about unsustainable company practices and the selling of products that were quite clearly not “green” nor particularly socially conscientious. Walmart’s turning “green” was an astute business decision which assured their continued profits and shareholder satisfaction with company performance.

My concern with the conference that has been niggling me a little was whether this “social entrepreneur” focus was not simply a front for capitalist interests. Green is sexy nowadays and it sells products. A company can be made or broken based on its green (or otherwise) policy. It also makes sense for large corporations to sponsor environmental causes (as well as the obvious good PR, it is also a good tax break). Am I being too much of a cynic here? I think not. The DBS bank of Singapore was the “diamond sponsor” of the conference. Its representative at the conference was quick to point out that the bank did not indiscriminately back socially worthy projects, but rather the projects with “connections” had a better chance of being “supported” (and he made it clear that this “support” was not necessarily of a financial type). They were even gracious enough to waive bank charges for the supported projects! How generous!

There was a message that came through the conference which on reflection grated on me. It was the concept of “success” being equated with “financial success”. Our Chinese ferryman would not have been deemed to be very successful if he attended the conference and I doubt if he would have got any award. Mr Walton of Walmart (personally worth a cool $25 billion) on the other hand won the jackpot award of the Social Innovation Park of Singapore. He got awarded as the Super Duper Grand Fellow or something or other. He was obviously the “social entrepreneur” that we should all aspire to be.

Another representative from Conservation International got on my nerves today. Firstly, he left the panel discussion before the designated finish time as he had another “important” appointment (which was very rude in terms of the conference attendees, some of whom had come thousands of kilometres to hear his pearls of wisdom). He was wearing his Armani designer suit, his Rolex watch, his Prada shoes (I suppose – do they make men’s shoes? I wouldn’t know) and no doubt earning an annual salary that could support several third world country families for several years. What made it all the more annoying – no, stronger than that – more infuriating, was that his salary was paid by public contributions to appeals and by company handouts. No doubt, he is doing some good, I suspect that some good must come out of the efforts of such groups, but at what cost? I am not suggesting that he should have come to the conference in overalls and gumboots, but are annual salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollar and a branded image necessary for someone representing Conservation International?

The concept of branding came up. Building a successful brand for a social entrepreneur was deemed to be of prime importance as this was to contribute to being successful commercially. Dignity of underprivileged and third world country populations was equated to their ability to purchase commodities and “brands” at the same level as a first world country. This struck me as another attempt by the capitalist system to survive in a climate that is still causing extreme hardship in the countries that built it. The USA will suffer from many more years from the effects of the economic recession, and the greed and avarice that caused it is now being peddled as “social enterprise”. We know that Communism didn’t work, we are experiencing the failure of rampant Capitalism, is “social enterprise” sand in our eyes? Is it thinly-veiled capitalism set to take advantage of us again?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not red. Perhaps a little pink, but Communism doesn’t appeal to me, it is as extreme as capitalism is. A socialist regime with strong government overseeing of national resources, control of public utilities, fair taxes, realistic limits of financial control, and many incentives for social equity is perhaps what represents me politically these days. At the same time, enterprise and personal hard work should be rewarded and sloth penalised. But I cannot support the system that rewards one individual’s work with an annual salary that runs into millions. No one person’s work is worth that much.

What I did not hear at the conference was an acknowledgement of the work of the ordinary person. To be a worker in a factory and earn a decent salary that allows you and your family to live a decent life was not even mentioned. To be a farmer who tills the earth and puts bread on the table was not something that was considered to be a worthy thing. To be an artist, or an intellectual, or a musician was not acknowledged as an essential part of our social fabric (unless of course one was a “brand” and earned millions)…

I need to think more about this. I am quite wound up over it at the moment, I need to consider it more, ruminate upon it further, discuss it with some people. I am worried that during these three days something did not ring true… Your thoughts on the matter will be appreciated.

Friday 2 October 2009


“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” - Voltaire

Last night the Conference Gala Dinner was held at the Marina Barrage. This was an amazing event where all stops were pulled out in order to demonstrate to the world Singapore’s ability to host an “event” to world standards. Marina Barrage bags top honours at international environmental engineering awards and is an architectural showpiece, which is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. 
The waterfront icon is the first Singapore project and only the second project outside of the USA in ten years, to win the top award at the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE)’s Excellence in Environmental Engineering Competition. It was conferred the Superior Achievement Award - the highest honour of the competition for the best project entry – at the AAEE Annual Awards Luncheon held in Washington, DC, USA. Widely considered to be the most prestigious of professional, peer-recognition awards focussed exclusively on the environmental engineering field, the award defines the best in environmental engineering practice: A holistic environmental perspective, innovation, proven performance and customer satisfaction, and contribution to an improved quality of life and economic efficiency. The Marina Barrage beat 33 other entries to take home the top prize in the competition organised by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE), becoming the second project outside of USA to win the award, in the last decade.

The dinner was scheduled for 7:00 pm, with cocktails before to welcome the guests and to have them enjoy a special prformance by the Singapore Youth Brass Orchestra. The courtyard in front of Marina Barrage is built on a monumental scale and the ambience is ne of luxury and imposing grandeur. The pre-cocktail menu consisted of champagne or fruit punch accompanied by hors d’ oeuvres: Watermelon with goat cheese and cracked pepper; smoked salmon, lime, crème fraiche and Asian pear; prawn Daikon roll, rosemary ginger vinaigrette; spiced chicken samosas, cilantro and yoghurt.

The dinner was created by Jean-Georges Vongerichten who has received the James Beard award for best chef and best new restaurant, and Esquire magazine voted him the Chef of the Year 1997. His restaurant also holds three Michelin stars, one of the four New York restaurants holding this accolade. The dinner menu was as follows:

Entrée: Crispy crab cake, cucumber, lime and crystallized ginger.
First plate: Sea bass crusted with nuts and seeds, served with a sweet and sour jus.
Main course: Parmesan crusted organic chicken, artichokes, basil and lemon butter.
Dessert: Cinnamon parfait, chocolate sorbet and coconut sago.
Afters: Mooncakes and pralines.

The wines were:
O:TU Estate Sauvignon blanc 2008, New Zealand; and
Lazy Monkey Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California.

During the dinner there was entertainment, with the Odyssey Dance Theatre performing an excerpt from the ballet “Red Tears”. Then the 13-year-old child star Julia Abueva performed a couple of songs and finally Simon Ng sang and led the orchestra in a musical performance. Following that, there were the Singapore Social Innovation Park awards, which honoured achievements by local and overseas attendees to the conference.

The night was quite a brilliant affair which was enjoyed by everyone and it set off the day’s more intellectual activities quite well.

Thursday 1 October 2009


“The sun, the moon and the stars would have disappeared long ago... had they happened to be within the reach of predatory human hands.” - Havelock Ellis

This morning I started off with an appointment at 8:30 in the City. While there, we felt a slight tremor. This of course was part of the shocks felt throughout the region as a result of the terrible earthquakes in Indonesia that has claimed close to 1,000 lives. This is in the wake of the Samoa earthquake and the horrific floods in the Philippines. The earth is certainly objecting to the horrible things we human are doing to her.

After my appointment I proceeded to Fusionopolis where the conference I am attending is hosted. Fusionopolis, is ground-breaking science and technology powerhouse for Singapore, which brings together, under one roof, research scientists, engineers and technology experts from the public labs of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and those from the private sector. Although their missions differ, these organisations share the common goal of advancing technology to create a better world. To achieve this goal, working teams have to be formed from researchers in the different disciplines housed in the Fusionopolis, including materials science and engineering, data storage, microelectronics, manufacturing technology, high performance computing, and information and communications. Fusionopolis is a point of convergence where companies with capabilities in infocommunications and interactive and digital media come together to test-bed new concepts and products.

The conference I am attending is the Global Social Innovators Forum (GSIF), which is a signature platform of Social Innovation Park (SIP), seeking to bring together a highly trusted community of influential minds from the public, private and social sectors. The aim is to seek opportunities to collaborate and embrace innovations that will define business, government and society. Hopefully the end result will be to build a more inclusive, sustainable and better world.

Last year, the GSIF attracted over 50 speakers and more than 300 delegates from 22 countries, which provided enlightening insights, thereby forging instant bonds and collaborations. This year, the theme is on “Collaborative Innovations: Investing in Team Earth & an Inclusive World”, with focus on collaborative innovations around the 3 ‘P’s – Profits, Planet and People, in ensuring a sustainable earth where the land, air, oceans and people can thrive within the global ecosystem. It will explore sound strategies in business, social, entrepreneurship and innovation in the green to gold movement, to create social, environmental and economic returns for stakeholders.

One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote address by Alvin Toffler of “Future Shock” fame. He and his wife spoke of the need for immediate action on multiple levels so that we ensure that we are able to cope with the crisis that we are experiencing at this stage worldwide. It is already too late in many respects and if we do not do anything to actively resolve many of the environmental issues that we now face, the battle may be lost. Another speaker of note was Robson Walton of Walmart fame. As a multibillionaire he outlined the way that Walmart became greener and demonstrated that being sustainable and environmentally friendly is not completely divorced from being profitable.

One of the best presentations was by staff of Conservation International, represented by Peter A. Seligmann, Chairman of the board and chief executive officer. A very strong message was passed on regarding sustainability, conservation of biodiversity, saving of threatened habitats and species and also the concept of “we > me” – working together in teams for the good of many, rather than the striving of the few to benefit themselves. More information can be got from the group’s website.


“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” - Aldous Huxley

Flew into Singapore today and got there just in time for an afternoon appointment I had. I always like visiting Singapore as it is a vibrant, vivacious and ever-busy city. There is quite an energy here, which always manages to draw one in and immerse one in it. Staying at the Holiday Inn, which is quite central and handy to the MTR, the underground train system that is convenient for getting around.

Singapore was founded as a British trading colony in 1819. It joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but separated two years later and became independent. Singapore subsequently became one of the world's most prosperous countries with strong international trading links (its port is one of the world's busiest in terms of tonnage handled) and with per capita GDP equal to that of the leading nations of Western Europe. I always think of Singapore as the “Switzerland of Asia”, and this is certainly justified in terms of its small size, prosperity and influence in the region.

One of the things that was immediately obvious was the smoky haze in the atmosphere here. This is because of the immense Indonesian fires that have put a pall of smoke over the region. The massive burning-ff that happens annually so often gets out of control and as well as destroying the rain forest it causes other environmental damage on a wide scale.

Tomorrow I have more appointments, but also over the next three days I am attending the Global Social Innovators Forum 2009, which is a premier event for showcasing achievements in sustainability, social equity and achievement both personal as well as organisational.

Tuesday 29 September 2009


“Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.” - C.P. Snow

Another busy day today with much to do in Cyberjaya, at the University College of Medical Sciences. Cyberjaya is a technology park adjacent to Putrajaya. It was launched in 1999 by the country’s fourth Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Cyberjaya was developed to help affirm Malaysia’s status as a country of Knowledge-Based Economy. A fully integrated city complete with modern amenities and facilities, it is easily accessible via major highways from Kuala Lumpur City Centre to Cyberjaya, a mere 26km or 20 minutes away. With a total land area of 7,000 acres, the Cyberjaya Flagship Zone is a self-contained intelligent city with world-class IT infrastructure, low-density urban enterprise, as well as state-of-the-art commercial, residential, enterprise and institutional developments.

The planning was made in such a way to provide comprehensive infrastructure with principal emphasis on its enterprise and office development as the catalyst for the growth of ICT enterprises and the multimedia industry in Malaysia. It is also to promote Cyberjaya as the regional and local ICT hub to rival the best in the world. 

Its competitiveness as a global ICT hub has made Cyberjaya one of the top three destinations for business support services and outsourcing in the world. The city is also expected to see a large boom in population growth over the next 10 to 15 years, with residential developments expected to reach a population of 210,000, business developments providing for up to 120,000 employees and institutional establishments providing for 30,000 students.

Today, Cyberjaya is home to many multinational companies such as Shell, EDS, Ericsson, BMW, HSBC, DHL and many more. It is also the chosen location for the nation's top smart schools and institutions such as Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology, Multimedia University and Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences. The town also provides a good living environment with convenient amenities such as hotels, boutique malls, recreation centres, community clubhouse and more.

Tomorrow morning, off to Singapore again!


“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” - Lillian Smith

I have appointments in central Kuala Lumpur, but also in Putrajaya, at the Cyberjaya University. Putrajaya is a city and federal territory of Malaysia, 25 km south of the capital and serves as the country’s administrative centre. Prior to the construction of Putrajaya, the Malaysian government offices were housed at various locations across Kuala Lumpur. With increasing traffic congestion, however, the distance between the offices began to hinder administrative processes. Consequently, the government resolved to create a new city where the scattered offices could be relocated and reassembled to form a more efficient administrative hub.

The prime minister’s office moved to Putrajaya in 1999. While Kuala Lumpur continued to function as Malaysia's capital (it was the site of both houses of parliament and the first royal palace) Putrajaya gradually expanded to include the Federal Court, the second royal palace, and many other administrative buildings. It was declared a federal territory in 2001. Putrajaya is managed by a corporate body that controls its development. Built on the former site of rubber and oil palm plantations, Putrajaya was developed as a “garden city.” It has an expansive man-made lake and many areas devoted to parks, botanical gardens, and wetlands. From its conception, the city was envisioned as part of a growing high-technology communications research and development corridor stretching southward from Kuala Lumpur. Putrajaya is accessible by numerous rail lines and highways and is in close proximity to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It has a population of about 100,000 people.

The photograph is of the Prime Ministerial precinct and palace.

Sunday 27 September 2009



“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain

Kuala Lumpur is capital of Malaysia and is located in western-central Peninsular Malaysia, midway along the west coast tin and rubber belt and about 40 km east of its ocean port, Port Kelang, on the Strait of Malacca. It is the Malaysian federation’s largest urban area with about two million people, and is also its cultural, commercial, and transportation centre. In 1972 Kuala Lumpur was designated a municipality, and in 1974 this entity and adjacent portions of surrounding Selangor state became a federal territory.

Kuala Lumpur lies in hilly country astride the confluence of the Kelang and Gombak rivers. its name in Malay means “Muddy Confluence.” Malaysia's Main Range rises nearby to the north, east, and southeast. The climate is equatorial, with high temperatures and humidity that vary little throughout the year. The area receives about 2,400 mm of rain annually; June and July are the driest months.

We are staying in central Kuala Lumpur in the Crowne Plaza Hotel and it quite a good hotel in a very handy location. As soon as we arrived here today we took a taxi from the airport, which is about 70 km to the South of the capital. That’s quite a long way, but fortunately the taxi fares are very reasonable (about $33 AUD). The way the system works is that there is a central taxi booking desk inside the terminal where one prepays the fare and gets a voucher. The taxi driver gets the voucher instead of cash and then redeems it later. The traveller is well protected and there is also protection of the taxi industry from scalpers and touters that sometimes work illegally, as I have seen in other places around the world.

On the way to the city, the heavens opened up and a good lot of rain fell, making us very glum indeed as we believed we would be unable to have a walk around and see the city a little on a Sunday afternoon… However, as soon as we checked in and settled in, the weather fined up and we were able to go “Jalan Jalan” (on walkabout!) and see some of the city. It is a vibrant, busy place with much going on all the time it seems, even on a Sunday afternoon!

We ended up in the Sungei Wang Plaza, an enormous shopping centre in the Asian style. Numerous shops are arranged on several floors and one can wander through there for quite a long time, not necessarily shopping, but rather taking in all the activities, the comings and goings, the people, the hustle and bustle. In fact while it is all very fascinating, one can only take so much of it, so after a couple of hours there we decided we had enough and we started to walk back to our hotel. The temperature was quite high, as well as the humidity, but nevertheless it was a pleasant walk. Tonight I think we’ll have an early night as the trip from Melbourne to KL via Singapore was quite a tiring one…