Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Documentary on the Afghanistan troop surge

Today's NYT has an interesting story on a documentary film being filmed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by American filmmaker Robert Greenwald. You can see the video below this quote from the NYT:

Mr. Greenwald is showing “Rethink Afghanistan,” a skeptical view of America’s war strategies, in five parts on the Internet, with the implied hope that it will contribute to the foreign policy debate. With the first two parts of the film already online, he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday to conduct more interviews for what he calls his first “real-time documentary.”

Mr. Greenwald is well known in some progressive circles for his films about war profiteers, Wal-Mart’s corporate practices, and the Fox News Channel. His company, Brave New Films, uses documentary expertise to mount political campaigns, including a YouTube series last year about John McCain and what the company called “the politics of hate.”

“Rethink Afghanistan” is being shaped both as a film and a campaign at the same time. Mr. Greenwald is already posting installments on the film’s Web site, RethinkAfghanistan.com, and also on YouTube. It will eventually be stitched together into a full-length feature. As he has done in the past, Mr. Greenwald will take his finished film to the public using a mixture of DVD sales and house parties. He said he also expected to receive some theatrical distribution.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fighting terrorism with entrepreneurship

I recently got to know about a young Indian, Shahid Syed, who had done an interesting experiment in Mumbai involving female Muslim students. "I wanted to see if I can motivate Muslim youth to fall in love with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he says. My interest was piqued and I wanted to know more about him. So, I sent him some questions.

Through his answers, Shahid tells us his own story, his journey of struggle starting from a small town in UP to Mumbai and then to America. "I did odd jobs, even ran behind coal powered rail engines to collect raw coal pieces so that my mom could use them as cooking fuel," he says. "I even entertained the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station as a number of youngsters were into it."

Now with an MBA degree from an American University, Shahid is planning to do his own bit of service to his motherland. Among the many ideas that he has, the most interesting is about fighting terrorism with entrepreneurship. "When we can create fanatically dedicated Fidayeeen Saddam, Fidayeen 9/11 and Fidayeen 26/11, we can certainly create Fidayeen - i.e. intensely motivated - in Finance and Entrepreneurship," he says.

Here is the interview:

I read about your unusual entrepreneurship training project in a Mumbai college involving female Muslim students. What was it all about? How did the idea come to you?

The idea came to me in an Entrepreneurship class here in my MBA program. That class had a profound effect on me. We were asked to submit a business plan and make presentations to a committee. It was a challenge but also a whole lot of fun. I enjoyed the experience and my confidence in starting a business on my own, found strength.

And since 9/11, I had been looking for an opportunity in helping the demoralized Muslim youth, so this idea came as a blessing. I wanted to see if I can motivate Muslim youth to fall in love with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As per the Rajinder Sachar report, compared to Muslim males, Muslim females in India have a higher percentage of finishing graduation. The Muslim male dropout rate is higher and the reasons are manifold. One : The Muslim youth feels alienated and deprived of job opportunities upon graduation, and two, they want to start earning their way sooner than later. Somewhere along the line, they lose motivation to continue the efforts that a college degree demands.

In contrast, the girls continue with the studies as they ‘wait’ for a decent marriage proposal. They are assumed to have no talent that can be utilized for their own benefit and community. This also brings an imbalance as these girls later don’t find a suitable match with equal education to marry within their circles.

Do you think we can really fight "terrorism" with entrepreneurship? How?


When we can create fanatically dedicated Fidayeeen Saddam, Fidayeen 9/11 and Fidayeen 26/11, we can certainly create Fidayeen - i.e. intensely motivated - in Finance and Entrepreneurship. I am sure the Muslim youngsters today are as brilliant as anywhere else. What is needed is a little guidance and the right resources – not just financially but even of motivation and encouragement.

Entrepreneurship is all about application of creativity and generation of ideas. I want to create a group of youngsters who will allow their inner creativity and brilliance to shine through.

I figured this when I made a film “Doosra Kinara” last year. The making of the film, more than the content of the film, to me, was a classical act of guerilla film making. I did everything to make sure my film gets made. I cajoled, pleaded, as I worked out solutions to my film making challenges. In this process I sought help across colors, nationalities and religious lines. People were gracious in helping, and more importantly, I ended up making some lifelong friends. In the diasporic world here in the US, there are some people who tend towards the extreme right wing of own religion, yet they joined me in making my dreams see the light of day. In the sheer interaction, we learned from each other about our – so similar! - insecurities, problems and root cause of hostilities.

The point is, when these youngsters start their entrepreneurial journey they will too realize how they must interact with other people that are different from them. There is no way an entrepreneur is going to grow, if he is going to cater to his tribe only. They will learn to develop tolerance and appreciation for other people’s point of view, as much as appreciating the money that they will earn with their own efforts.

I want them to fall in love with life, their community, their city, state, country and the world….

Did your own life so far taught you how Muslims in a country like India can come out of their pathetic socio-economic conditions?

I was 12 when my father passed away in Farrukhabad, a small town in UP. That resulted in me dropping out of school and looking for ways to support my mother in running the house. I did odd jobs, even ran behind coal powered rail engines to collect raw (un-burnt) coal pieces so that my mom could use them as cooking fuel. I sold kites from my home. When I attracted enough customers I started, making my own manjha (sort of an abrasive), that I called Shahid bhai’s manjha (now I think of it as backward integration!). I even entertained the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station as a number of youngsters were into it.

My mom sent me to Mumbai to be with a relative to further my education. There again in Mumbai, I did odd jobs - fetching chai to supervising a construction site during SSC.

Looking back I don’t think I did that badly…..Of course there is more to the story afterwards, but the bottom line is you dream and it will be given. Nature, Allah, God is kind to hard working good people, and this is my firm belief. There is always a road that springs up from somewhere if you have the right intention….

In Urdu it goes this way : “Neeyat saabit manzil aasan”

In the years of my growing up in India, I was witness – as everyone else – to a regular diet of Meerut, Bhiwandi, Mandal and anti-Sikh pogroms. Corruption ruled, and here, I was a mere small time jebroni, almost as if I had no role in deciding the future course of my life and the nation. My journey to the US must have begun long before I actually landed here. I recall that when I was in my final year of engineering, I wrote a short story in which the hero of the story declares “ I am either going to change the System or get out of India”.

At that point of time, I chose to get out of India. After completing my Masters in Civil Engineering, at Atlanta, Georgia, I did go back to India. This was 1992, and this was when my country welcomed me with the images of some folks dancing on the top of an abandoned 500 year old masjid and the later dance of evil that followed in my city.

Somewhere along the line, I came back here to the US, but with my heart stayed with the need to do something for the youngsters back in India, who could not avail of a better life. Worse, who believed a better life was not possible…

What are your future plans? How do you want to apply your ideas of social entrepreneurship in India?

Ideally, I would want to create entrepreneurs in India irrespective of caste, creed, religion and state of origin. However I do want to focus on a certain socioeconomic strata of our society that has been left behind. I see a lot of parallels between majority of Muslims in India and the blacks in America. In jail, there are more of them by sheer percentage, they have higher levels of illiteracy, are frustrated and prone to entertaining violent thoughts.

India is about to enter the elite club of developed nations and we cannot afford to leave a part of our population behind. We must offer an equal opportunity to our youth to excel in whatever area they chose. We need to provide them all the tools and training necessary and then surely they can show us what they are made up of.

I will be conducting the same process again in a few months. Preparations are on to take the next steps of “Threshold India”. The idea is to spread this at the grassroots, across cities with more involvement and the seeking of long term winning ideas. We plan to offer micro credit loans to those who would want to take forward their ideas in the real world. As well as tacit support in these endeavors.

Anything else you want to add?

The world today is at a threshold.

In this last decade, we have seen planes flown with the intent of harming innocent civilians, we have seen wars conducted in order to kill a perceived enemy and ‘cleanse the world’. Within nations, we have seen men and women killed by state controlled police and militia.

It’s about time we turn the page and offer history a chance to write some good stories: stories of hope, redemption and courage. It's about time we offer stories that inspire the next generation so that they can set their eyes to new horizons.

Fortunately, there are some great brains in the business that are supporting me in this endeavor. These are the people who show up in Mohallahs without a trace of hesitation, an area they would not have visited if it was not for this cause. And they are entrepreneurs/writers of repute like Piyul Mukherjee, Pia Verbic and Rashmi Bansal. Their continuous support and guidance is helping "Threshold India" sprint towards its goal with a lightning speed.

I invite you all to come and join me. Provide me with your support and your ideas, so that we can together serve the cause of creating a culture of entrepreneurship among our nextgen. After all, at the end of the day, we all have just one designation on this planet.

And that is being human….

Friday, March 13, 2009

When ‘growth’ is not good

For a narrative to work, it should have a dramatic resolution. If that is not possible, an emotional resolution is a must. I thought of this thumb rule of storytelling when I read the news today about Bernard L. Madoff’s admission in a US court that he had run a vast Ponzi scheme (US$65 billion)—a representative story of Wall Street’s ‘breathless search for profits’. His ordering to jail may provide emotional resolution to the thousands who lost their money in the Wall Street meltdown but this is definitely not a satisfying denouement.

And I’m not alone in holding this view. “…There can be no restoration of confidence in the banking system—and therefore no hope for an economic recovery—until Wall Street comes clean,” says William D. Cohan, the author of “House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street” in his 11 March op-ed piece “A Tsunami of Excuses” in the New York Times. “If the executives responsible for what happened won’t step forward on their own, perhaps a subpoena-wielding panel along the lines of the 9/11 commission can be created to administer a little truth serum.”

I doubt if that’ll ever happen but the seriousness and the sincerity of Cohan’s demand cannot be questioned. The current global financial crisis, issuing from the greed of the ‘prodigals and projectors’ of the Wall Street, has attacked and weakened the very foundations of the capitalistic system—the system that underpins the globalised nature of trade and life in the world today. While for dramatic reasons the spotlight might remain on the Madoff saga for a while, the actual debate has moved on, to focus on the nature and future of capitalism itself.

The future of capitalism

“Capitalism—our ability to buy and sell, move money around as we wish, and to turn a profit by doing so—is in deep trouble,” says Professor Paul Kennedy in an article in the Financial Times.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen even argues for making changes in the capitalistic system. “The question that arises most forcefully now is not so much about the end of capitalism as about the nature of capitalism and the need for change....the crisis, no matter how unbeatable it looks today, will eventually pass, but questions about future economic systems will remain,” argues Sen in his piece in the Financial Times.

Surely, this is not the end of capitalism but the questions about the economic system are aplenty.

Peak Credit?

One of the most important questions is about credit and its scant availability (in the current scenario of credit crunch) for companies.

“Credit is the oil of the economic engine, and credit ultimately is a creation of confidence” writes management guru Ram Charan in his recent book, Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty (MacGraw Hill, 2009). “Until all players are confident about the intentions and strengths of the others, there can only be stagnation.”

Charan’s advice to CEOs and business leaders, in this environment, is to conserve cash. “Your focus must shift from the income statement to the balance sheet,” he says. Protecting cash flow is the most important challenge almost all companies face today whether they realise it or not.”

Clearly, the importance of cash flow and credit availability cannot be overemphasised. In the unending cycle of inputs and outputs, driven by profit motive, credit plays the god—both for the producer and the consumer. But peer inside this god and you will say, well, the devil is in the detail. Here are some figures to help you gauge the monstrosity of the credit problem.

For some years, credit growth has been surpassing the growth of economic activity. In 1980, for example, debt levels for US banks were running at 21 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). By 2007, the figure had grown to 116 per cent of GDP.

Isn’t this jump monstrous? If you thought so, what would you call this one? For the US to create its first trillion dollars took its entire history of two hundred years. To create the next trillion took the last 6 months. We are creating a trillion dollars every 6 minutes!

What kind of growth is this? Does it have any relation to the reality on earth? No wonder then that now even ordinary readers are ranting against the global monetary system. “Banks and Central Banks create money out of thin air,” complaints a reader in a blog. “When you get a loan they give you money by a tract of a pen, just like printing new notes. This is just ‘not fair’ even if the government makes it legal. Moreover, it creates profound imbalances into (sic!) the economy, by permitting people that did not produce anything before to buy goods and service. Invest without produce and save. Investments without real savings… The very basic economic law is that you produce then you save and then you consume. The way around is physically impossible. You cannot consume what you have not produced.”

Repeat of past mistakes

And what’s been the government response to the credit crisis the world over? Cut interest rates, print money, slash taxes, get credit flowing. This might work in the short term but this is not a long term response: a recipe for a W-shaped cycle of bust and boom.

“Expansionary monetary policies are the wrong medicine to solve current problems,” said Dr Doom, Dr Marc Faber, at a dialogue in Singapore in February. “They can address the symptoms of excessive credit growth, but not the cause.”

Moreover, as the US government is pumping trillions of dollars in the rescuing the banks, does anyone know who will purchase the $1,750 billion of US Treasuries to be offered to the market this year? And in 2010, then 2011? China is already saying that it is ‘worried’ about the safety of U.S. Treasuries.

During the crisis, governments have to choose between a rock and a hard place, said Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in an interview in the Financial Times. But a long term solution has to be found, he emphasised.

Is there a long-term solution then? Yes, there is.

Go for smart growth

“For the first time since World War II, global growth is forecast to turn negative—and that's an optimistic forecast, relative to the possibility of a global lost decade,” says Umair Haque, director of Havas Media Lab, an innovation advisory company. “Today's leaders are plugging dikes, bailing out industries and banks as they fail. Yet, what negative global growth suggests is that the problem is of a different order: that we have reached the boundaries of a kind of growth.” Umair’s manifesto for smart growth is worth reading.

Obviously, with the changing circumstances, and in the face of the gawking absurdities of our growth model, we ought to respond to the crisis with a paradigmatic shift. Call it smart growth (Haque) or humane capitalism (Sen) or less selfish capitalism (Richard Layard), its time has come. The sooner we set about figuring it out and implementing it the better, for we are running against time.

(First published in MIA Asia blog)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Review: Past Caring

“Say something nice,” demands one of the characters in the play Past Caring. Saying nice things matters for human beings. But it becomes the first causality when people start discriminating against other people, when they begin to celebrate their differences for all the wrong reasons—resulting in racism, denial of justice and exploitation. That is one of the principal themes of Past Caring, the most recent production from Necessary Stage. The play is written and directed by the award-winning Playwright-Director team of Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan. It is inspired by a poem written by Australian writer Henry Lawson.

The play is an ambitious take on serious themes (adoption, racism, displacement, abandonment, family, territories) and the story encompasses Singapore and Australia, exploring the subject with a stereoscopic vision. There are three main episodes in the drama: the opening one is set during the Second Great War, another one is set in the 1970s and the episode in between deals with the present.

Four main actors Leroy Parsons (Australia), Glynis Angell (Australia), Siti Khalijah (Singapore) and Sukania Venugopal (Malaysia) play a clutch of characters who expose the cracks in the two societies. The tracks include an Indian teacher in Australia distraught by a racist experience and the condescending attitude of an Australian colleague, an Indian mother with her adopted Chinese daughter who is abandoned during the Japanese attack and rivalry and eventual relationship between a Singaporean Malay student and an aboriginal student at an Australian university. There also is an episode that takes the tension, if you will, into the skies—it is a funny one where two flight attendants of ‘rival’ airlines exchange some charming repartees.

Within 70 minutes of playtime, the scene of action moves back and forth between Australia and Singapore, between the past and the present, enmeshed within a narrative that plays out so smoothly, without giving one the jolt of disconnect. That clearly shows the mastery of Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan who have structured the sequences so flawlessly. Except for the first fifteen-twenty minutes when one takes a bit of time to soak in the minimalist atmosphere and the introduction to the play’s themes, the acts unfold with such convincing speed that one is left in a tailspin of breathlessness, not able to predict when the final moment comes.

Apart from the very capable actors, the multimedia work by artists Loo Zihan (Singapore) and Kim Lawler (Australia) make one at times feel as if one were watching a piece of creative non-fiction (can you say that for a play?). Their pieces provide the hard support to the fluid acting of the quartet. Their works’ contemporariness and significance cannot be overemphasized—it even has a track of interviews with Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore where their struggles are documented. Be it a migrant labourer or a maid, their situation has been portrayed with a humaneness that warms the cockles of one’s heart.

Tony Yap’s physical dance initially seems out of place but soon he makes you accept his presence. As the play moves on, his choreography provides a counterpoint to the story in a fusion of complementariness. Films have background score. Tony Yap’s choreography becomes the background score of Past Caring. His last act amazingly gives closure to the line of a story that can happen only in a play.

The four main actors are extremely talented. They have given a riveting performance but they excel only when they are in the skin of a particular character. Their acting is spontaneous and if there was any ad libbing anywhere, the improvisation did not show.

When people say something nice, it gives a release to an inner, incipient tension. That is what happens in the play which is buoyed by a positive spirit, the spirit that wins in the end.

If politics is the art of the possible, Past Caring stretches the possibilities of drama, successfully tackling serious themes that keep hounding our societies in different garbs. Standing ovation guys!


Dates: From 25 February to 8 March 2009
Wed 25 Feb - Sat 28 Feb 2009 and Thurs 5 Mar - Sat 7 Mar, 8pm
Sat 28 Feb - Sun 1 Mar 2009 and Sat 7 Mar - Sun 8 Mar 2009, 3pm

Venue: The Necessary Stage Black Box
Tickets: $27, $22