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Q & A, republished as Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup. It’s an awesome book. While books generally are better than the movie (unless the book is written after the movie), in this case it was more notable on one count. The ease of suspension of disbelief. For the rest of the world (which includes me), Slumdog Millionaire (the movie) was awesome. For Indians, the suspension of disbelief was tad harder – the transition from a Hindi-speaking slum boys who could barely keep up their badly-taught English lessons suddenly became a tour guide of the Taj Mahal – not very likely.

As much as it is a good book simply for the story and story-telling, the language holds it back a bit. There was nothing objectionable about the writing, but the fact that the flashbacks were written in present tense. As the non-flashback bits were also written in present tense which cheapens the quality of the book. (More gushing review and comparison with the movie – with bonus spoilers – here)

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup. I loved Q&A, but this, not so much. It’s still an engaging book. The story is hardly simple: industrialist son of a mafia don turn Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Vicky Rai, was murdered. There are six suspects, who had their stories told. And the suspect list just grows, making for a very convulated ending. One person got the blamed pin of him, he dies. The blame moves to someone else, he runs away. They consider another suspect, that seem like the best fit for the murderer. Meh, someone else. That was the ending.

The ending though was forgivable, what wasn’t so much was the writing. While still an easy read, it moves from newspaper editorial to telephone transcripts to narratives to TV show transcripts to diary entries. I don’t think all that was necessary for the story – look at Jeffrey Archer (perhaps the mainstream modern master of writing novels with a chokeful of characters): consistent writing styles for different facets, different points of view of the story. Its as if Swarup thought he needed this gimmick to make the transition between characters easier.

The story is still good. Quite convulated, but good. Not as good as Q&A (some cameos of Q&A characters thrown in though).

My friend Sancho by Amit Varma. My first exposure to Indian lit. It’s a good read, plenty of humour (unfortunately, it seems to be packed at the first half), and an almost subtle hint of libertarianism (and even less subtle plugs of his blog). The story is of a bored Bengali journo in Bombay who was assigned a job of writing a balanced piece of the death a local Muslim man – killed in a police raid and later was said by the police to be a gangster.

So the journo interviews his daughter. And the cop. Falls in love with one of them (named Sancho – you guess which). Some parts were a bit hard to follow for a non-Indian; but overall very accessible.

Your email address isn’t rajanr [at] gmail [dot] com.

I know, it hurts that someone else got the email address before you do. Well, I wanted rajanr@yahoo.com and rajanr@hotmail.com* before Gmail came about, but someone was there before me. I lived through it, survived. Found a different address to call my own.

For that reason, I’m slightly unappreciative that I have to clear off your emails (for some, despite repeatedly clicking “Report Spam”, GMail doesn’t believe I’d prefer such emails to be blocked).

With less than kind regards,

Rajan Rishyakaran

* Don’t care about spambots getting those fuckers’ email addresses.

Dr Mahathir posted up a piece on the Johor-Singapore water agreements. Somehow, to me, it seems his argument is less of an indictment on Singapore and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government, and more of an indictment of the failure of Dr Mahathir.

In 1961, Malaya and Singapore signed a water agreement, giving Singapore the right to draw up 86 million gallons of water per day from Tebrau and Scudai rivers, as well as Pontian and Gunung Pulai reservoirs. In 1962, another supplementary agreement was signed, giving Singapore the right to 250 million gallons of raw water per day from Johore river. In both agreements, Singapore agreed to pay 3 Malaysian cents per 1,000 gallons and to supply Johore with treated water for 50 Malaysian cents. Also, most crucially, Singapore agreed to bear the infrastructural cost throughout the period of the treaties.

Both agreements gave an option for price review after 25 years – Singapore asserted that review can only be demanded at that 25-year point, while Malaysia asserts that review can be invoked at at point after 25 years . Since September 2001, Malaysia have been demanding that the price of raw water be increased – to 30 Malaysia cents up to 2007 (retroactively applied to the 1986 and 1987), and RM3 per 1,000 gallons after 2007.

Even if Malaysia had the right to review, any new price required mutual agreement – Mahathir’s government demanding an absurd price made any separate water resolution impossible.

To further compound Mahathir government’s failure to reach a new water deal, Singapore offered to pay 45 Malaysian cents for 1,000 gallons of water as part of a package of other bilateral issues. In October 2002, Malaysia took the water deal out of the package of bilateral issues. This further made it harder for Malaysia and Singapore to compromise on both the water issue as well as a host of other bilateral issues. Moreover, Mahathir government’s refused to discuss the extension of the 1962 water agreement – they said that Malaysia is only willing to start talking about it two years before the water deal expires in 1962.

Why should Singapore agree to pay significantly more on water when they get absolutely nothing in return? Instead, Singapore intends to let the 1961 agreement lapse in 2011: with NEWater, the Tuas desalination plant, as well as the addition of Marina Resevoir to the list of Singapore water catchments, they don’t need that water agreement. For Johor, the amount of cheap treated water will reduce dramatically in 2011. Johor will also have to take over the operations and maintenance of the the 1961 agreement’s infrastructure.

Certainly, even under Mahathir’s price of raw water, Malaysian raw water will still be cheaper than self-sufficiency: but capitulating to Mahathir’s demand sets a negative precedent on Singapore. Because of Mahathir’s inability to compromise, unreasonableness and impatience with Singapore, Singapore and Malaysia is stuck in a lose-lose situation.

Stumbled upon this on Wikipedia:

In one instance, during a Liberal filibuster in the Canadian Senate, Senator Philippe Gigantès was accused of reading one of his books only so that he could get the translation for free through the Hansard.

What
I’m not talking about the usual sort of charter cities (a roughly legal, constitutional term), but rather Stanford economist Paul Romer’s conception of a charter city.

I first bumped into it on a TED video, and eventually grew into it. The concept is simple, as explained by the FAQs:

The two prerequisites for a charter city are uninhabited land and a charter granted and enforced by an existing government or collection of governments. With the right rules, a city will naturally grow as residents arrive, employers start firms, and investors build infrastructure and buildings.

Why
The broad reasons why Malaysia needs charter cities is that we are at a policy nadir. There is significant political inertia to adopt good policies that work better (things like good and low regulation, non-discrimination, a hard currency, free trade and freer immigration). All these will be compounded, not minimize, as Malaysia gets more “democratic” and divided politically – UMNO has to go back to the base and rally support, while Malaysia’s authoritarianism means there is little incentive for the rise of centrists in government.

The de facto unitary nature of Malaysia further compounds this problem. We have states without meaningful power, and local governments subservient to the federal and state governments, rather the local populations. Not only this means policy is less responsive to local issues, there is very limited policy competition. Charter cities provide this opportunity to experiment with policy, administrative and planning ideas – things like public transport and pedestrian-centric urban development, instead of the sprawl-prone, car-centric cities Malaysia has.

The second broad reason is the urban concentration in Malaysia is situated in Klang Valley – the primate city of Malaysia. The reason this happen was simply because post-independence industrialization and trade policy focused heavily on this region – other regions, with little autonomy, could hardly compete. Charter cities in Malaya’s east coast and in Borneo will even out the development inbalances, benefiting the hinterland in those regions.

How (i.e. feasibility)
Malaysia already has experience in charter cities. The Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore were developed that way – the colonial version of the charter city. In Selangor, Kuala Lumpur was started when the Sultan gave tin mining and settlement rights to the Chinese – the frontier city of Kuala Lumpur, developed by the Chinese kapitans, soon grew rapidly into Selangor’s largest city, and eventually, its capital. In Sarawak, Kuching and other older Sarawakian towns grew rapidly under the White Rajah rule, as the Brook family took over large swathes of land from a inefficient and disinterested Brunei sultanate.

A charter city today will work for the same reason why hinterland-less Singapore became Southeast Asia’s richest country (on a per capita basis): good governance and free trade. This is a given because a charter city has to compete to survive: if they cannot attract workers, traders and investors, it would go bust. Therefore they will have the incentive to pursue policies that may not be populist (like free trade and immigration) but essential for economic growth and vibrancy. Furthermore, starting out with a low population and little built environment gives policymakers a chance to experiment.

Where
For a good chance to succeed, I’d say somewhere accessible to the sea (so it wouldn’t be dependent on other cities to trade with the rest of the world). I’d say the size of a charter city should be around the same as Malacca (which is slightly larger than New York City).

The key part of it is that there should be minimal existing human settlement under the charter city. When the British took over Singapore and Hong Kong, the local settlement was a bunch of villages. Seeing this hitch, I’d say the three most feasible states are Pahang, Sabah and Sarawak. My personal preference is for the Rajang delta region (I have a romantic perception of the Netherlands). It is sparsely inhabited by aborigines. Its potentially fertile ground, making early settlement easier. And it is downriver from Sibu and Sarikei, making such a city a viable, local entrepôt. Such a region, with abundant freshwater, will be less dependent on neighbouring states for basic utilities.

When
I predict, due to the low economic liberty and poor governance in Malaysia, growth will be rapid. Many of the world’s major cities have grown rapidly (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York comes to mind) for good reason. Such cities grew rapidly to fill a gap where existing cities either did not exist or poorly fit the bill. Beyond economic competition, in the east coast and Borneo, such a gap (a strong economic centre) remains.

P.S. I’m not opposed to a socialistic charter city. In fact, it will set it up for an interesting policy competition – one I expect a liberal charter city to win.

So earlier this term I made the rash decision to accept an internship offer and took the term off at the last minute. No regrets at first. In fact, little regret so far. But nevertheless, not really what I expected (in SMU terms, it is like being in Week 7 throughout – you don’t have to fake the nasty Weeks 12-15 but you’re working on Week 8 and post Week 15).

So far, my takeaways are:

1) I have a better idea what I want and don’t want do to with my life. I’ve been in sorta denial about my interests, simply because it is a tad hard to pursue them. Not pursuing my interests seems to be harder.

2) I know way more about myself. You know the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I know full well my weaknesses before this internship, but I have a far better idea what I cannot change now.

3) Nevertheless, I heartily recommend nobody to walk in my footsteps. I don’t think the tradeoffs are worth it. I could learn all these lessons post-graduation, but with a better paycheck and no stupid hostel duties.

In fact, don’t drink from the internship Kool Aid. If anything, I regret wasting so much time doing stuff I don’t like when I have the freedom to do things I like. Have fun. Make the best out of college (inasmuch as SMU is a pretty shitty place).

The worst part is that I doubt each subsequent internship will improve my chances for a job.

Lest they get confused why I am looking for Bob the Builder theme song lyrics, read copies of the Swiss constitution or the myriad of other things that bears absolute no relation to my work.

Please don’t fire me.

Saw this on Instapundit. The federal government wants to investigate urban sprawl and its impact on the transport system. Which provokes a bit of comments that angrily opposes any move to restrict the “freedom” of people to live in suburban communities.

Except in status quo, in most states, the true cost of living in suburban communities isn’t accrued to those who take this choice. Take the networks of highways serving these communities – most of them are funded by a large amount of federal and state tax funds. Even tollways rarely have their full cost recovered from the tolls. This of course, doesn’t include the externalities: congestion and pollution, especially if the sprawl is replacing forests and shrublands.

Other factors come to play too – broken public schools in city centres, for example. New urbanism need not be about blocking people’s freedom. If you remove all subsidies for highways (i.e. they are all tolled, or all city drivers have to pay for a car tax), throw in congestion charging and a higher gas tax to charge for the externalities caused, remove zoning, density, and other regulation – and higher density, smaller cities will be the result.

New urbanism should be about achieving this by removing real and effective subsidies suburban dwellers receive, and then making life easier for those who move back to densely-populated cities. New urbanism has a lot of good ideas on land use – mixed-use development, better street design, better mass transit design and access, etc. Just that, maybe the best way to achieve it isn’t to add more regulation and restrictions, but removing regulation, restrictions (current zoning and density requirements) and subsidies.

I loved Slumdog Millionaire, it is one of my favourite recent movie. I still do, even if slightly diminished now after reading Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (republished as Slumdog Millionaire). I mean, prior to reading the book, I had low expectations. Jamal Malik of the movie is Ram Mohammad Thomas–and I figured the suspension of disbelief would be harder.

Turns out no. It presents a much starker picture of India, and how the poor are institutionally disadvantaged. Ram Mohammad Thomas, for example, runs between Delhi, Mumbai and Agra just to avoid the police, just because he doesn’t trust them to be fair. Ram contrasts starkly with Jamal, though. Jamal is a unlucky saint in love, who catches a lucky break. Ram’s character has a lot more shades of grey – he steals more than shoes from the Taj Mahal, and his involvement in murder is a lot more than merely being in the same room.

The concept of the movie and the book are quite similar – Jamal and Ram answers questions based on their past experience, narrated through flashbacks. The movie is based on a police interrogation, the book is based on a client giving his account to a lawyer. The movie has the narrating occuring after the penultimate question; the book is after. There’s some suspense in the movie because of this. The book makes up for this loss of suspense with its gripping tales and the unexpected twist at the end. So which do I like better? Well, its beyond the break, chokeful of spoilers.

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Bought tickets last night from AirAsiaX for a little over RM500 (some S$210) to Melbourne – a return ticket. Flying to Melbourne from KL on 19 June 2010, and back on 12 July 2010 (as the duration was negotiated with mother dearest–I wanted 1.5 months, she wanted 1 week, an awkward compromise was sought). For my grad trip, I wanted something Western yet Europe and North America was unquestionably out of the budget.

It could end up not being my grad trip though – I may extend my studies over until December. But I’m all the excitedness – my last, carefree holiday before I start work.

My rough itinerary: 1 week or so in Tasmania (skiing, family). Slightly less than a week stalking Natalie Tran in Sydney. A bit of time in the Yarra Valley or Hunter Valley wondering why the held I would do a winery tour in winter. And a few days in Snowy Mountains, on the way back from Sydney to Melbourne (will drop by Canberra if a certain cousin wants to see me).