What a wonderful life

April 4th, 2009 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

It’s been a pretty great stretch since Shanghai.  Weeks of intermittent work, an exceptionally fun weekend in Delhi, a really special and luxurious week in Hawaii, several marvellous sunny days in San Francisco… who wouldn’t be happy?

Plus I got to see my cousins, Malcolm and Forrest!  Time really does fly – in no time they’ll be 27 and 24 and I will be reminiscing about the time we went to that fun little media museum in San Francisco together 🙂

 


Puff Puff in the morning

March 3rd, 2009 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Puff Puff in the Morning II (9 Nov 2009)
Taken 9 Nov 2008

I should probably also mention I’m back from Shanghai, having wrapped up last week on my nearly three month project there (which felt more like six).  The clients seem happy, they bought several more months of work.  I’m planning on a nice restful period of recreation and recovery.


On American democracy and Obama

February 4th, 2009 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

After a couple of 18-hour days in a tight circuit between office desk, conference room and hotel room,  today was a revelation.  A 90 minute massage at a tasteful spa during office hours, followed by a lovely Teppanyaki buffet dinner with sake.  Wait, I get paid to do this?  As I told Zhen, we are like infants or people lacking the ability to form long-term memories, no matter how tough the times, a couple of hours of relative release and we are suddenly happy again.  Bizarre, but better for the psyche, I guess.

So instead of watching the two new episodes of Gossip Girl I have waiting in iTunes, I spent a couple of hours (??!) penning my thoughts on American-style democracy and Obama’s election in response to an email I got today.  I thought I’d post it for posterity.

I’ve recently been reading Joseph Stiglitz’s “Making Globalization Work”, and while it is a very good read (of course), one of the things that has irked me is the illogical knee-jerk praise of American-style democracy, often falsely equated with “more democracy”.  Stiglitz frequently reminds us of his views on democracy and his preference for “more of it” in the American style, although when it comes time to back this preference up, the best he can do is say that “economic success is fully consistent with democracy” (p56), while arguing that government interventions are critical for development – the same types of interventions that are have historically been most effective under less democratic forms of government (e.g. technocratic or autocratic systems in China, and Singapore).

 

In my view, the commonly encountered paranoia and distrust against “undemocratic” forms of government (read, non American-style democracies) often seen in newspaper editorials, political commentary and general punditry stems from a uniquely American and dysfunctional view of government.  So called “paternalistic” or technocratic forms of government inherently require higher levels of trust and specialization of function, and to me it is no coincidence that this description precisely describes the increasing sophistication of higher societies and civilizations.  Make no mistake, in modern society all of us are already fully dependent on all sorts of institutions and third parties to make decisions for us to maintain life as we know it – medical researchers, journalists, financial institutions, legal experts.  Accepting all these other dependencies (call it blind faith) but expressing distrust against the government (the only relevant unit of society beyond the family for Singaporeans) is simply logically inconsistent.  More importantly, in the US it is based on the inevitable sense of betrayal that arises from their many glaring failures of government – the blighted inner-city ghettos, the soaring budget deficit, the embarrassing/lethal foreign wars, the crippled public school system, the social security time-bomb… which only begs the question, why should we adopt their system of government at all given their failure rate at all levels (city, state, nation, international)?  It is clear that many other governments have managed decades of success (by any measure) in other countries – the Scandinavian social democracies, the Asian Tigers, tightly controlled Vietnam and China, even Suharto’s Indonesia… all these demonstrate that a government’s performance does not necessarily have the implied relationship of more democratic = more successful.  

 

To the contrary, it is easy to argue that goals can be much more efficiently achieved in less democratic situations.  Just try imaging the inevitably nightmarish outcome of India attempting to stage the 2008 Olympics in Delhi or Mumbai (highlights include flagrant corruption, choking pollution, inevitable construction delays, ballooning costs and at least one deadly terrorist attack).  Successful governance and American-style democracy (or even more democracy) are poorly correlated.

 

All this begs the question of what we are supposed to be measuring when evaluating a government or system of government.  I say government is a means to an end, rather than an ends in and of itself.  To be pedantic, a government’s sole purpose for existence is to perform pre-defined governing functions such as maintaining law and order, representing/defending the country’s interests at the international level, and also raising the standard of living for all within its borders by providing key infrastructure and services as well as overseeing economic development.  To hear many pundits talk, you would think that democracy is an end in itself, and that countries should all be striving to increase “democracy”.  I beg to disagree.  I think the only benefit that can be attributed solely to increasing democracy is the “feel good factor” that is itself a conditioned reflex born out of America’s disillusionment with their government (and to a lesser extent from Europe’s disillusionment with Fascism).  Americans blindly believe more democracy must be a good thing, let’s not fall for that fluff.

 

Trust is the only thing that matters when thinking about how a government makes people feel – we trust that the government is broadly accountable to the governed, and more importantly that the government, just like any other organization, is working its hardest to satisfy its mandate.  On this point I find it baffling to hear any Singaporean expressing any kind of distrust of the government, and especially bizarre to hear a well-educated (elite, if you like) Singaporean express suspicion or doubt towards the government, even in the abstract.  Everyone knows people in the Civil Service, and among educated people, everyone knows fairly senior people in the government.  In other words, there is no real “us versus them” division between the government and Singaporeans (unlike in the US or France or Russia or even Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan).  I know my ex-colleagues in the government investment corporation, my aunt in the tax bureau, my uncle in the public utilities board and my classmates in the foreign ministry and economic development boards are all trying to do their jobs well, and their jobs are in the end in service of Singaporeans.  In fact, my ultimate charge against those who would claim that there are systems of government “better” than the Singapore model is that I have yet to hear any clearly articulated vision of what the shortcomings are (as opposed to things people do not “like”) and why any other system of government would be “better” by any reasonable evaluation criteria.  Most commonly I hear vague preferences supported by assertions of difference that simply fall apart upon closer examination.  Did the US not have Jim Crow laws and segregation, Japanese-American internment camps, McCarthyism, or Guantanamo?  Yes, Singapore has the Internal Security Act, a history of bankrupted opposition politicians and attempts at media censorship, but I will not accept simple assertions that Americans are in any way more “free” from anything, including fear from the KKK, police brutality, crime and gang violence, and the CIA/Homeland Security/Patriot Act.  (Not to mention crooked governors and insurance commissioners, broken emergency response systems and the clear challenges of trying to raise drug/rape/violence-free children in America, never mind education.)  It is not enough to unsystematically evaluate systems of government based on a few random data points and a warm and fuzzy feeling arising from lack of knowledge.

 

This brings us to the sad truth about American politics, that it is all about feel-good politics.  Almost by definition, American feel-good politics preclude any kind of defensible logic or demonstrable longer-term benefit.  All style and talk but ultimately very little to show for it other than billions spent on election campaigns.  Consider this quote from a Singaporean celebrating Obama’s election:

 

For this is the value of democracy: it can banish apathy, it can advance in maturity, it can heal ancient enmities and transcend petty politicking. It can put the country’s interest before any ethnic group’s, it is robust and adaptable, it can peacefully remove a government even after massive failure and abuses of power. It can even systematically ask the world for forgiveness, or at least provide a chance every electoral cycle to ask for forgiveness: and I believed on November 4th 2008 the world was, no matter how momentarily, willing to forgive America. It is the people coming together, with all their pained and beautiful differences, and peacefully making a choice. And yes, it can change the world.”

 

Where to even begin parsing this?  Obviously Obama’s feel-good quotient is through the roof, and I’ll be the first to say that I feel good about Obama’s election too.  However, is there really any substance behind these vague positive feelings that for me are attributable to Obama’s skin colour and handsome looks combined with Michelle Obama’s stylish wardrobe and Harvard connection? 

 

Let’s start with the idea that American democracy should be emulated because it can “advance in maturity”.  Obviously there has been no chronological relationship established by Obama’s election unless one would suggest that Bush Sr was inferior to Clinton was inferior to Bush Jr (or back to Nixon or Kennedy).  And remember that Obama has so far done squat as president so this cannot possibly be any sort of celebration of his actual merits as president.  And if we are referring exclusively to the selection of the Obama-Biden ticket over the McCain-Palin ticket, was that choice more “mature” based on anything other than race?  It’s hard to imagine otherwise.  If so, we are left with saying that America cast a cumulatively meritocratic vote (and do not forget the millions who voted for McCain-Palin).  Why was this more “mature”?  America has never had to choose between an all-white vs quarter-black Presidential ticket before.  And similarly they have never had to choose between an all-male and half-female ticket either.  From this perspective, in both the Democratic primaries and the presidential election Americans picked the all-male teams.  Why not call that a failure of meritocratic ideals?  Just remember that the response to any sort of argument about Obama’s election being a bellwether of the times or any indication that American politics can “do the right thing” is that tens of millions of Americans voted for the painfully unqualified Sarah Palin.  And America’s voting record is spotty – similar tens of millions of Americans voted to re-elect a demonstrably underperforming (and dishonest) Bush in 2004.

 

Notice also that most of the praise about Obama’s election is ultimately a discussion about meritocratic principles, which are often unrelated to democratic ones.  America supposedly did the “right” thing because they elected Obama despite his race, his family background, and his lack of big business or old money connections.  In other words, Obama’s election was pleasingly meritocratic.  But meritocratic principles are not tightly linked to democratic ones.  The Tang dynasty was unrivalled for its meritocratic approach to government in its age, and in its own way, so was the Chinese communist party in its early days (certainly their perspectives on gender and class was very advanced).  Next, in a similar type of argument, the idea that a country can “peacefully remove” abject failures (that they re-elected, like Bush) is also unrelated to democracy.  This is possible under any style of elected government.  Being able to peacefully remove underperforming leaders has no relevance to any argument for more democracy or more American-style democracy.

 

To return to the “banish apathy” assertion which came first, there is no relationship between style of government and apathy towards politics or the democratic process or government in general.  Americans have been the most apathetic voters imaginable for many decades.  Villagers in 1970s communist China and Apartheid-era South Africa were deeply passionate and involved in politics.  There is simply no logical way to assert that American-style democracy has any useful claim to be able to “banish apathy”.  And again, as laid out earlier, this is completely unrelated to properly evaluating any form of government.  (If not Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cultural Revolution China and WWII Japan would all score very high as apathy would not have been possible in those regimes.) 

 

Another red herring is the “robust and adaptable” claim for America’s form of democracy.  Robust and adaptable in what sense?  Is this only about race, yet again?  For America has certainly elected other literate, talented men (and how many presidential candidates promise change and non-partisanship?  I know McCain did, too.)  I would say Britain’s and Thailand’s constitutional monarchies have been pretty robust and adaptable, as has been the Communist Party in the PRC.  And most importantly, how can anyone claim Singapore’s PAP has not been robust and adaptable (albeit over less than half a century)?  All that needs to be done is to recall Singapore’s history, myriad and evolving challenges and steady moves towards social liberalization.

 

The final line indicates that America’s democracy is inspiring in that way people come together in the process of “peacefully making a choice”.  Leave aside for now the already repetitive argument that this is no way unique to America’s form of government, nor is “peacefulness” necessarily a useful metric to measure a government (Cuba’s been pretty peaceful for decades, India’s elections are usually bloody, Taiwan’s parliament has broken up in inconceivable fisticuffs several times, and Israel has been often at war).  I would say that democracy in general is more often about the illusion of choice.  Americans had two candidates to pick from, and at least one of them was shockingly unelectable (Palin, for whom there is talk of a future Presidential bid).  Now that Obama has been installed, he will have access to exactly the same range of powers that Bush had before him, and he will probably have to make choices that are increasingly unaligned with his campaign promises (especially if he wants to effectively deal with the economic crisis or the inevitable foreign policy crises ahead).  Just like the presidents before him.  In the end, Americans will have next to no choice whatsoever when it comes to the decisions President Obama makes in deciding to sign the next iteration of Kyoto or to alter the course of troop deployments in the Middle East.  Just like before.  The choice that Americans exercised was really a fairly illusory and shallow one, as they are in most democracies other than direct one.  And this illusion of choice is shared across all democracies, not just America’s.

 

Ultimately, there are two things that can be said about Obama’s presidency – the first is that President Obama may do a wonderful job and go down in history as the President who turned around the economy, drew the world closer together and successfully tackled the awful budget/social security messes he inherited.  That would be an unqualified success, but would be unrelated to the form that democracy takes in America.  The second thing to say is that Obama, the young, former one-term senator from Illinois, currently inspires the hope that he will be exactly such an outstanding president, and that hope is exactly the feel good factor that defines American politics.

 


Year of the Ox; Musings on the state of fashion

January 25th, 2009 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

It’s upon us!  Happy Chinese New Year.  I am grateful to be home with family and friends.  Our traditional Reunion Dinner was even more lively than usual this year with the addition of another family.  Instead of New Year’s eve, we had brought the dinner forward a day to accommodate my sister who was on call at the hospital all of today (a touch depressing to have to work for 36 hours on a holiday).  So we had one of our aunts and her family join our early Reunion Dinner, making it the 3 oldest siblings on my father’s side of the family, along with the family matriarch, with whom I really should spend more time while I can.

Me, Puff Puff and Peapie Rooster, 25 Jan 2009

Another thing to be grateful for is the fact that this week-long break falls right in the center of the very intense case I’m staffed on in Shanghai.  Literally as I was stepping out of the elevator to go to Reunion Dinner, the most important meal in the Chinese calendar, my phone rang with a call from my manager in Hong Kong.  My heart sank not a little. 

Blessedly it turned out to be a false alarm – my manager’s phone had accidentally dialed me while in his pocket.  I wonder why I’m first on his call list?  (Later that night at 5am his phone left me a voicemail of him leaving some woman’s apartment… Don’t think I’m not going to tease him about that when I see him again next week!  I’m sure he was just at some house party, or perhaps at his sister’s, but he is single, which makes it all the more amusing.)

Only three-ish more weeks on this case.  And blessedly, again, I can now look forward to an unexpected trip home in two weeks because my class at work is having training.  I love my job, I love my job! 🙂

As business and economic news continues to paint a grey picture, fashion is very clearly suffering.  The Fall-Winter shows for next season are some of the gloomiest, most uninspiring stuff I’ve seen in years.  Gone is the exuberance of feathers, hand-painted fabric and gratuitous fur.  All has been replaced by conservative classics in black, charcoal and navy. 

🙁

I’m not sure what I think of this strategy.  If Burberry Prorsum and Prada–usually some of the most interesting menswear shown–are only showing ultra subtle variations on classics that most men already own (navy double breasted blazers, black wool peacoats, black oxford lace-ups), are these really the pieces that are going to sell and save these companies?  I’m personally not sure.  For the first-time buyer, perhaps that’s what they want, the basic Burberry nova check scarf (also easily available everywhere for about $20 from counterfeiters or me-too manufacturers, and under $100 from Burberry factory outlet stores).

But for the rest of the market (the majority of the market), we already have the black pima cotton crewneck t-shirt, the dark wash jeans, the khaki trenchcoat.  And even if I needed a new one, say a cashmere car coat, how am I going to differentiate among all these designers making the same thing?    As numerous consumer psychology studies have shown, people are worst at deciding among many similar things, they are much more likely to choose to buy nothing.  I know that if I walk by Dior, Jil Sander, Marni and Giorgio Armani and they are all selling the same thing (black leather wallets, white cotton dress shirts), I’m apt to just give up and leave empty handed.  And with the price points these labels are at, I might as well buy my coat from Zara or have my tailor in Bangkok make me a bespoke one.

That’s where I think designers putting out collections based on optimism have got it right.  Yes, we may all want to be more restrained and thoughtful with our spending, but if I am going to be tempted to shell out for a luxury item in the coming months, it’s going to be for a Gucci Tattoo print Babouska tote, or an Etro duffle bag in mottled green python.  In other words, it’s going to be something aspirational, fabulously unique and impeccably made.  And if you make it affordable (the Gucci bag is about $800 if you can find a store with stock, the python duffle will probably be $700 at 60% off), then I’m sold.  In this FT article, the same message is clear: “We are not seeing people trading down,” [Burberry Finance Director, Stacey Cartwright] said. “What we are seeing at all levels of the pyramid is people just spending a little bit less – there’s less footfall to start with and when people come into the stores they are just holding off on buying that second or third item.”  If you ask me, if there was a second or third amazing lace handbag or brocade cardigan, these shoppers would be much more likely to buy.

In any case, this past Fall-Winter 2008 and Spring Summer 2009 seasons will likely be the last great shopping seasons we see for a while.  Both these seasons were designed and priced before the financial crisis, and a lot of the Spring Summer merchandise was probably ordered before retailers like Saks and Neiman Marcus reported huge declines in sales.  Lanvin was still showing whimsical neckties made of feathers, and Dolce & Gabbana were pushing ironically opulent formal wear inspired by sleepwear.  Even thinking about this makes me sad.  Fast forward three or four months and Chanel has fired 200 staff in Paris, Bill Blass has gone out of business (along with Waterford Wedgwood) and the industry is awash in dire predictions.  Burberry has announced up to 540 jobs cut from payroll (coupled with it’s 30% rise in sales spurred by steep discounts, this caused Burberry Group shares to rise 12%).  So stock up on as many beautiful fashion objets d’art you can afford, for in the coming seasons they will be harder to find (and certainly less heavily discounted).

As for me, I should definitely stop heeding my own advice.  In the past two months or so, I’ve bought so many bags that it’s bordering on an unhealthy obsession…  The list so far:

–Salvatore Ferragamo Origami frame bag – I’ve waited literally a year for this to go on sale for the price I wanted.  Yay!
–Fendi Bag de Jour in blue Zucca denim- what a great price for a great bag!  After buying it at Changi T2 with Terence, I found it being sold online at Overstock.com for about 25% more (where it was also sold out)
–Marc Jacobs Daydream bag – I really want the one in Orchid instead of the brown one I got…  still tempted!
–Gucci Positano Scarf Tote – not that exciting, but functional?
–Chanel vintage lambskin large chain tote – I’ve eyed these for a while, now I have one! 🙂
–Prada FW06 nylon and marmot fur bag – has to be seen to be believed, what a gorgeous beauty!
–YSL oversized Muse in Terracotta – I still want a dark brown one… we’ll see

That’s seven, and there are still others: two more Prada satchels, a Bottega Veneta canvas tote, an enormous Burberry duffel/tote in gold from the Shimmer series (irresistible at 50% off), a Ferragamo shopper, a Gianfranco Ferre laptop case and a couple of clutches from Calvin Klein (an amazingly textured pewter number that was selling at 80% off) and Etro (trying to get my total purchase of two fantastic belts up to qualify for a gift).  That’s… fifteen??  Since December? 

Yet I still want a Givenchy Sacca tote, and those other Gucci and Etro bags I mentioned earlier.  Erk.


Happy New Year!

December 31st, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

It’s three hours to midnight, and 2009.  Today I’m in Beijing, yesterday it was Xi’an, and three days ago it was Shanghai, with a brief day in Singapore.  In just four days I will be back in Singapore and then almost immediately back on a plane to Shanghai.  What a difference a year makes.  I can barely recall where I was last new year’s eve, other than at Zen’s house party, followed by a fun trip to The Butter Factory.  I had just finished up a long project in Malaysia, and would be staffed on a Vietnam case within weeks.

The food here in China is very good, we had roast duck tonight, at what is apparently the most famous restaurant for the delicacy in Beijing (tracing roots back to 1864).

Weather-wise we’ve been pretty blessed with sunshine and not overly blustery or icy days.  Nonetheless at the end of today’s walking tour of the Forbidden City I was grateful for the warm car and the chance to thaw my frozen feet.

Beijing is completely different from the memories I have of the city from over a decade ago.  My half-memories (mixed liberally with scenes from various movies and TV serials) of an ancient Chinese city crowded with bicycles have had to readjust to the shockingly wide streets (filled with Audis and VWs), striking skyscrapers and bright lights.  I suppose I should have expected all this, given the many mournful and/or nostalgic articles and programs on Beijing (and a mythic Old Beijing) I’d previously seen on National Geographic Magazine, Discovery Channel and even CCTV.  Yet the reality is still a little jarring. 

I also realise that many of the memories I had of my last visit to Beijing as a young boy are simply false.  For example, I had the strongest impression that the Temple of Heaven was in fact an annex to the Forbidden City.  It is not.

It’s been a good year, I trust.  May 2009 be an even better year, the best year yet.


Things I heard on CNN…

November 16th, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Now that I’ve gotten my typical treadmill run up to about 90+ minutes, I’ve been watching far more cable TV then I used to, given that I have either my iPod or the gym multi-screen TV system to keep me entertained/distracted.  All in all, this is probably net positive, since I do not read the newspapers regularly.

Anyway, Proposition 8 passed in California.  I’m a little surprised, since I figured that most voters would be well-educated on the issue given the amount of media coverage and campaigning that resulted, and to me the obvious choice for an educated voter would have been to vote “no”.  I suppose that would have been giving too much credit to the majority of Californian voters.

The other night I watched Joy Behar moderate a farily heated discussion on the Larry King show on the passing of Proposition 8.  There was the mayor of San Francisco and a New York writer on the “against” side, and two Christian religious leaders on the “for” side.  The whole programme quickly dissolved into repetitive and vaguely nonsensical quibbling.

First, why were there two Christian religious leaders on the “for” side?  Is there really no other reason to vote to ban same-sex marriage?  This is not a rhetorical question, and I honestly wonder what else could be said against legalising same-sex (civil) marriage without relying on a religious tradition argument.  If there could be some vaguely secular reason, that would give the Proposition much more legitimacy in my eyes.  Not because religion is not a source of legitimacy, but because the whole idea of a secular democratic state is to seek a balance among differing sources of legitimacy, to prevent (usually one narrowly defined) religion from tyrannising everyone else.

Second, the arguments given by the two religious leaders…  to me they seemed embarrassingly weak and self-defeating. 

Christian leader: “When we look at the state of marriage today, with 60% of black children being born out of wedlock, and 40% of black women never getting married… marriage is in trouble, and needs to be affirmed, and protected.  Legalising same-sex marriage will weaken this sacred institution and threaten our already unravelling social order.”

Joy Behar: “But can you explain how does legalising same-sex marriage weaken or threaten social order or heterosexual marriage?”

Religious leader: “Historically, everywhere that same-sex marriages have been legalised there has been a further weakening of the institution of marriage.  In Europe, Canada, even in the US.”

Where to even begin refuting this??  Joy (and the other two guests) rightfully pointed out the the (worsening?) problems with the institution of marriage in America are certainly not caused by same-sex marriage or anything even vaguely related to homosexuality or gay rights.  How could they?  Marriage was clearly in trouble well before even Canada or the Netherlands or Massachusetts legalised same-sex marriages.  Going further, there is absolutely zero reason to think that banning same-sex marriages will have any effect AT ALL on the state of the institution of marriage.  (“Honey, they’re banning gay marriage in California now, maybe that means we should not get divorced?” -“Agreed, and we should also start to encourage all our friends to marry before having children now that gays can’t marry!”)   It’s an obvious lack of logic: even if you can point to two broad events happening at about the same time (e.g. growing support for legalising same-sex marriage, a fall in popularity/longevity of heterosexual marriage) doesn’t mean there is a necessarily a casual relationship in either direction, or even a correlation.

And another thing, on the “sacred” institution of marriage – like it or not, the church (or mosque or temple or synagogue) does not have any monopoly on the term or the institution of “marriage”.  Yes, legalising same-sex marriage does somewhat “redefine” marriage – but this only necessarily redefines civil marriage, the legal, State-sanctioned version.  It does not in any way dictate religious marriage, just as much as a “not guilty” verdict from a secular judge has nothing to do with divine calculations of right and wrong, sin and guilt, karma and retribution (or lack thereof, say, if you’re an aetheist). 

It’s worth mentioning that while pretty much every religion has some concept of marriage, there are some wide variations on the theme, the most notable being monogamy versus polygamy.  More interesting, some of these variations occur within the context of the same religion across different sects or across time.  The Old Testament acceptance of polygamy is an obvious example.  So even the oft-cited “Biblical” view that marriage is “one man, one woman”, is a little less black and white than some modern Christian leaders might like, since for hundreds of years it was at least socially acceptable to be “one man, several women”.  That doesn’t mean same-sex marriage is Biblically endorsed, of course, but that’s not the point, since the Bible (or Torah, or Analects, or any other holy text) is not the source for the definition of modern civil marriage.  No priest or religious leader will ever be forced to perform a religious ceremony against their will or against their religious beliefs, and that’s the way it’s always been in a secular state.  You would Americans should be able to accept that – aren’t they the ones who practically invented the phrase “agree to disagree”?

PS:  I thought Cynthia Nixon was simply stunning on the show when she spoke up for same-sex marriage.

PPS:  Other things I heard on CNN – in 2000, California voted against same-sex marriage with a 22 point margin; in 2008, Proposition 8 passed by 4 points.  Across the US, over 30 states voted against legalising same-sex marriages with an average rate of over 70%; back in 1967 when the US Supreme Court outlawed state bans on interracial marriage, over 70% of the population opposed that decision.

PPPS:  Yes, I am Christian too.

Sometimes it seems like we’re all growing up to fast.  I remember a time when 1982 was not long ago, and people born that year were barely out of secondary school.


And back.

October 8th, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

It’s been a good couple of months since I last wrote, and who knows why, given that I’ve had a very relaxed couple of weeks lately.  Almost a month, in fact.  In summary, since the last time I wrote:

– I visited the Dins of 2008 on tour in Bangkok, but was away again in Lagos when they got to Singapore around National Day
– My Nigeria project wrapped up in late August
– I went on vacation with the Dins to Mexico and LA where Tour ended.  That was a lot of fun.
– I’ve been put on a few little things at work, a little wrap up here, a little client development there… then I got assigned to a project that got put on hold

So now I’m holding steady, and happy for that, too.

American politics…  yeesh.  Listening to the public debates for the 2008 presidential elections makes me feel like the whole process is all fluff and no substance.  Sure, there are talking points, catch-phrases and carefully rehearsed evasions.  But how can any voter be expected to educate themselves based on a 90 minute debate?  Even a three hour debate seems insufficient.  Can it be surprising that the American “media elite” often takes a mocking stance towards their Government (at all levels, from Federal on down)?

In contrast to the media circus that constitutes the public-facing side of American Democracy, it seems perfectly reasonable and logical to prefer a quieter, more efficient form of democracy (e.g., the Singapore system).  We would like choices, our opinions to be heard and heeded, our decisions to be embraced.  Sure everyone would like a lot of things, but someone has to figure out how to best balance out conflicting desires within constraints.  And no, the free market is not always best, because the “free market” is itself nothing of the sort.  It’s a social construct, with rules and rulers, unequal access and information assymetries, powers and social responsibilities just like the rest of our social world.  It’s a mirror image of the rest of society, so trying to pretend it’s somehow different or exempt from the constraints of the real world is silly, and dangerous.  The free market is not fairer or more neutral, or more meritocratic or more efficient, rational or adaptive than government.  It just depends on how you define “fair” or “efficient” or any of those other measures, and just as importantly, which government is being compared to what market at what point in time.  For most intents purposes, the free market is a form of government: it’s a way of ordering society, securing contracts and property, allocating resources. 

The current massive collapse in confidence in the American financial system, now spilling over to Europe as well, makes it easy to point out the potential pitfalls of a lack of regulation in the market (with both presidential candidates promising more regulation to come) when trillions of dollars of wealth and debt were essentially figments of the system’s imagination – “synthetic” products and mortgages and derivatives thereof.  The natural reaction is to swing back towards more regulation, or more “government” (government bailouts, handouts, nationalisations, state assurances, guarantees, capital injections).  But the age-old swings in opinion between regulation and deregulation is illustrative of a more fundamental tension between democracy as mob-rule (carte blanche, laissez-faire, caveat emptor)  and democracy as technocracy (expert-rule, faith in the system, specialised division of labour).  Note that technocracy is not incompatible with democracy – the ideal system is one where every or at least most members of society are educated experts (the US, with it’s two-thirds high school dropout rate, can hardly be said to qualify under most reasonable analysis), but even barring that ideal it’s a question of degree: how much decision-making is handed over to experts and dedicated specialists rather than being made by referendum, petition or lowest common denominator.  Furthermore, a true technocracy is a network of experts whose influence is bounded by the breadth of their expertise, which provides the necessary checks and balances – the economists have to debate the social workers and environmental scientists, the historians and lawyers, with conflicts mediated justly by the judges acting within the constraints of that society (precedence, Constitution, values, law). 

I recognise that in some ways it is a question of values – the American ideal essentially means that the voice of a relevant expert is considered equal to a barely sober, barely literate, unemployed 18-year old high school drop-out.  For me, I see that history has demonstrated that greater acceptance of democracy-as-technocracy–where thoughtful, studied expertise is the foundation of negotiation and decision-making–can lead to the sort of smooth efficiency and faster, greater achievement associated with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan these past few decades.

That’s all.

I’ve recently heard the term “outstation” being overused, and as with most overused words, used inaccurately.  Firstly, a simple definition look-up indicates that “outstation” is a noun, not a verb (as in the common Singapore usage: “He is currently/will be outstation”).  Secondly, outstation is traditionally used to indicate remoteness and inaccessibility in a post or location.  Neither Bali nor New York are outstations.  Thirdly, and bafflingly, outstation is quite cumbersome and multisyllabic, compared to “abroad”, “away”, “not here” and other perfectly good (and more accurate) substitutes. 

In conclusion: No, I will not be outstation from tomorrow.  I will be away in Bali till Sunday for my annual office retreat.

See you later 🙂


“Live” from Lagos

July 13th, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Here in Nigeria again, for work.  Who would have thought I’d be back here so soon?  Certainly not me.

Nigerian TV is surprisingly good, with top notch Hollywood films and the latest music videos playing seemingly non-stop.  To date, despite being fatigued every night, I have watched Meet Joe Black, The History Boys, and Blood Diamond.  Admittedly that last one wasn’t the best film to see while in Africa.

I recently read an article about Inequality in America which commented that poor health among the urban poor is driven, among other things, by a lack of safe, convenient options for outdoor exercise.  It’s one thing to read it in a scholarly magazine, but it’s quite another to experience this first hand.  Here in Lagos we are often entreated by our hosts not to go anywhere unescorted, and the “roads” around the hotel compound in one of the nicest parts of the city are uninvitingly muddy, pot-hole riddled obstacle courses lined with discarded tyres, fallen lamp-posts and other debris.  I’ve been told the nearest big parks are an hour outside the city, by car.  In this I’m reminded of my time in Dhaka during the monsoon floods back in 2004, when we were equally restricted with few options for taking walks.  Even then there was a small park a block away from the hotel that was accessible for the first week or so before being flooded.

Here I’ve been making do with desultory in-room exercises, supplemented by energetic prancing around the enormous bedroom to music from iTunes.  I’m concerned that someone will embarrassingly see me through the balcony doors, but so far I think that hasn’t happened yet.

I went to church today, prompted by my curiosity to see what is apparently the largest Christian church in the world.  Turns out it’s an enormous network of smaller churches under the “Redeemed” banner that meets as a huge congregation on the first Friday of every month.  On this Sunday we attended a smaller service near our hotel in Victoria Island.  It was more colourful, varied and fun than I had been prepared for.  I supposed I hadn’t formed enough of an image in my head of what it would be like.  The two of us that went were terribly underdressed.  Most of the women wore large hats with feathers and silk flowers, a la Ascot.  The men were mostly in suits or vibrantly hued local garb.  The singing was sensationally joyful, rather like attending a concert, or being on the set of an African Sister Act.  The large church band had an excellent saxaphonist, and a lot of stamina.  I’m glad I went, especially this will likely being the only bit of tourism I do on this 9 day trip.

I pray I manage to successfully stave off excess eating these next few days.  There are many good restaurants here (two lovely Italian outlets in this hotel alone), and our hosts have been very insistent that we eat rather too well for my waistline’s liking 🙂


Happy anniversary

June 25th, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

It’s been a little too long, I know.  Hopefully it’s a skill not easily blunted by disuse. 

Randomly, at today’s case kick-off meeting I noticed the date and realised it’s been exactly one year since I started at this job.  One year ago today I was a fresh new intern, and today it’s come full-circle and we have two fresh new interns on my case.  I’m even working with the same manager again. 

How to sum up an entire year gone by in a flash?   

Travel-wise, in the last 12 months I’ve travelled for work to Cape Cod (for training) and Bali (for office retreat) and also to Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Nigeria (all for cases).  I took a couple of vacations both brief (Hong Kong, Bangkok, Malaysia) and longer (back to the US).  I’ve worked on about 5 cases for 4 clients (and starting on my 6th case). 

Pet-wise, I now have a pretty full-grown Puff Puff and his two erstwhile companions.  Yay fluffies! 🙂 

— 

Earlier this week, a returning partner meeting me for the first time said, “I look at Jason, and they seem to be getting younger and younger.”  I thought that was funny, since I’m among the oldest of my class here. 

— 

I wanted to blog about the amount of attention that’s suddenly (re-)emerged about Harvard grads being lured into consulting and finance jobs, almost by default, and often to the detriment of more thoughtful, more ultimately fulfilling choices.  Aside from all the media attention, here in the office we’ve had several sessions where we’ve been exhorted by senior managers (and an alumna) to figure out what our personal vision is, our conception of personal success.  It’s hard not to be provoked to thought, and to yearn for that firm sense of personal direction.  But yearning is not the same as figuring it out, to committing to a plan or a path, with all the attendant risks and investment. 

As such, it’s pretty timely that the flavour of the day at Harvard (and elsewhere) is something along the lines of, “where have all the dreams gone?” 

The New York Times: “Big Paycheck or Service? Students Are Put to Test
The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Big Paycheck
President Faust’s Baccalaureate Address 2008 – the one that started it all

Ok, it’s pretty late now, and I’m still in the office.  This entry took nearly an hour to write (?!)  Maybe it is a skill that gets rusty.


Waiting for… what?

April 15th, 2008 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Do you remember how much easier and more resiliently promising everything seemed to be once upon a time, years ago?  Sometimes it feels like you take a whole bunch of steps forwards, towards some vision of what an “adult life” might look like, with the requisite loosely-framed beliefs and inevitable responsibilities, hazy plans and daily effort, small triumphs and minor compromises.  I filed taxes in Singapore for the first time yesterday (thank God for the ultra-user-friendly e-filing).  Last week a group of us discussed the dynamics of arranged marriages in Indian culture and its more universal applicability. 

Then other times I feel almost perverse in my instinct to push away as alienated the norms of normalcy, growingly aware of the mismatch between the state of my mind and state of affairs, either imagined or otherwise.  Yet I occassionally experience in powerful flashes the strong suspicion that this isn’t it, can’t be it… hopefully.

I’m still in Delhi, give or take a couple 6 hour flights back and forth.  I’ve actually fared very well with the pseudo four-day-workweeks, between fly-backs and a birthday holiday for Lord Rama.  We’ve switched accomodations, to someplace lots nicer, and with copious amounts of quite thoughtfully curated art everywhere–no insipid watercolors–in the public spaces.  I appreciate.

Came across an article about Adorno…  and now I really want to read me some Adorno.  It’s fun to recall the mind-boggling fun we had those days, trying to speed-read through the excerpted convolutions of Horkheimer, Heidegger and Weber in translation.  The titles of those books and articles alone signalled the mental gymnastics to come – Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, anyone?  Good times.

Today I told a funny story about an economics professor XW took a class with…  and then it occurred to me later that the professor in question had a Nobel prize, and several bestselling books, and worldwide name-recognition.  And there wasn’t anyone around to share in my contentment with this memory.  A small pity.

Puff puff is now big enough to wear his diaper 🙂  Yay!!