Tuesday 30 November 2010

Growing Pains

Coincidentally to the discussions about Sir Frank Fenner's views on the dangers of growth and "unbridled consumerism", BBC Worldwide's Peter Day aired a program on 29 November titled "Growing Pains".  It's rather good

The end is nigh; don't do anything....

Run, Run Run for your lives 
Swiftly take cover
We're paying the price 
The Sun, The Sun 
The Sun is falling down 
Out on The Sky 
I can hear the people cry
Prophet of Doomby Yngwie Malmsteen

Below, sent to a Canberra Coffee Club group, in response to the clip of the obit of Sir Frank Fenner, famous Australian medical researcher.

Sir Frank Fenner, Medical Researcher, prophet of doom

A friend sent a clip from the Telegraph obituary of Sir Frank Fenner.  My comments in a following post.
[photo: Telegraph]

Friday 26 November 2010

A couple of cheap shots; of disasters and contributions

Reading about the horrible "Stampede horror" in Cambodia last weekend -- 378 killed -- I was brought up short by the chart in the South China Morning Post of 24th November "The deadliest crowd disasters of the past 20 years"(*).

"Hardliners seek Christian woman's death"

The article below from today's South China Morning Post reveals something about two issues in Islam: the difficulty of reform and the size of "fundamentalist" (or "hardline" or "extremist", or just plain "pious", take your pick) groups in Islam.
[photo: SCMP]

Profiles in cowardice

There's been a lot of fuss recently over the new security measures put in place by the US's Transportation Security Administration: you go through the full-body x-ray scan, or you opt for the full-body "pat-down".
Many -- on both Left and Right -- are upset at these invasive measures.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

My view on Climate Change

Here's where I stand at the moment, having read around the topic from both sides over recent years and more intensely in recent weeks:
The globe is warming.  Part of the warming is owing to emissions of Carbon dioxide, which absorbs reflected infrared.  Part is due to natural causes, such as the bounce back from the last ice age.  The proportion of the two causes is not known exactly, but 50/50 might be about it.  Reductions in Co2 will help mitigate the warming, but the cuts will need to be drastic: perhaps 50% of current levels and below that may not have any effect (this point has been made, if I recall correctly, by Jim Hansen, the "father of global warming").
I have a few questions still:

Friday 19 November 2010

The Bible is just as violent as the Koran. Not.

A recent reader's comment on the Bible and the Koran,  along the lines that the Bible is just as violent as the Koran.  Since this is an objection I often get, I thought I'd post my reply here, so I can refer to it later.  My comment first and then the commenter's.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Krispy Kream creamed in Oz and Hong Kong

A touch of smug self-satisfaction on reading of the demise of Krispy Kream in Australia
We had considered buying the franchise for Hong Kong some years ago.  That was after we’d already bought, in 1999, and established the franchise of the Wall Street Institute in Hong Kong, the first in Asia -- and which is just now celebrating its tenth anniversary(*) --  so we thought we knew something about US franchise operations (because we did…).
The thing that stopped us buying the Krispy Kream franchise...

Wednesday 17 November 2010

One Law for All: Passion for Freedom private viewing on Saturday 20 November

One Law for All is pleased to present a private viewing of an art exhibition in London on 20 November 2010 from 18.30-21.30 hours in which a group of international artists address the controversial subject of religion and human rights. The exhibition includes pieces on the veil, female genital mutilation, child ‘marriage’ and women’s oppression.

Monday 15 November 2010

"Part of the Whole" thoughts on mother earth, by Cormac Cullinan

Below is a piece in today’s South China Morning Post by a fellow called Cormac Cullinan, titled "Part of the Whole".  It’s not available except by subscription, so I’m posting it whole, with my comments interspersed.
I certainly agree with moves to control commercial fishing – we’re in serious danger of massive collapses of key fisheries.  And in favour of people eating less; and of food labeling, especially with info on calories; and of eating less meat; and of eating less (especially me); and of cutting back on consumption generally.   All good stuff.
The problem with people like Cullinan is that they look to major government involvement in the process, and that always worries me for I’ve seen what it can do in China.  Grim.

The case against Keith Ellison

The case against Keith Ellison:
This post is based on Lucy Ash’s interview of Keith Ellison (D, Minnesota), America’s first Muslim Congressman, on BBC Outlook, on 13 November 2010.
At 4minutes 30s Ash says, about Islam:
“So you felt it was a religion that promoted, wholeheartedly, social justice.”
“Absolutely,” says Ellison (or “Keith” to the giggly in-awe Lucy), rather taken with such an overly flattering formulation that even he hadn’t dared to voice.  (Did he feel he might have been gilding a rather limp lily?).
Goodness me, talk about putting words into the interviewee’s mouth!
What are the words with which the young and giggly Lucy did not think to question Ellison?  Why did she not ask him about:

Friday 12 November 2010

Birds and Bees in Hong Kong

Greater Coucal

It's cooling down here in just-tropical Hong Kong, getting down to 19 C at night, brrrrr.   That means we can turn off the a/c and leave the window open, and that, in turn means we're woken by the music of the birds in our garden: magpie robins, bulbuls, olive-backed pipits.
I left early this morning and flushed out a Greater Coucal, usually found in the rain forest or scrub on the mountains just behind our house, not so often near humans.  It squawked its cuckoo-call, thrashed through the low bush and took off over the banyan trees.
Here are some of the birds I've identified in our garden, up the mountain, or the park right behind us:

Thursday 11 November 2010

Sharia Finance op-ed: more than a "moral hazard"

The article below was an op-ed contribution to the South China Morning Post, which I sent out last week.  It’s in response to an article copied below, by Andrew Sheng, the former Chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, promoting Sharia finance in Hong Kong.

Islamic finance is hazardous to one’s health

It’s very odd to see a former Chairman of the Securities and Futures commission, Andrew Sheng, spruiking for Islamic finance and its alleged “ethical” prohibition of interest. [1]. 
Even more bizarre is his claim that Islamic might offer “great service to the rest of the world”, assuming it solves “moral hazard”.
Just a moment professor Sheng!  Islamic finance is a hazard to much more than one’s morals.
Consider some of the hazards of Sharia finance:
First, the Sharia hazard.  It is self-evident that Islamic finance is a part of Sharia, since “Islamic finance” is often known as Sharia Compliant Finance, or simply Sharia finance. [2]  Sharia jurisprudence is made up of often-draconian laws inimical to freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and the equal rights of women and minorities.   The “Reliance of the Traveller, Umdat al-Salik”, the authoritative Manual of Islamic law makes this clear. [3]
Second, the hazard of funneling of money to terrorism.   A portion of profits from Sharia finance must be donated to Islamic charities and some will find its way to terrorists.   We know this will happen because: (i) it has already happened --  the recent Holy Land Foundation trials in the US identified 27 Islamic charities as funnels to terrorist organisations. [4] And (ii) it is called for in Sharia law –12.5% of money donated to Islamic charities must be used to promote Jihad.[5] Promoters of Sharia finance (such as professor Sheng) may play down the terrorism link, but the evidence is clear:
The 9/11 Commission Report:
“Donations [to al Qaeda] flowed through charities or other nongovernmental organizations.” [6
Stanford University:
“…terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have traditionally relied on Islamic charities for much of their funding.” [7]
The US Navy Center on Contemporary Conflict (USCCC):
The crux of the matter in combating the exploitation of Islamic charities by terrorist organizations comes down to the fact that… there is a recognized religious duty in the Muslim world to donate a set portion of one's earnings or assets to religious or charitable purposes, which in turn must donate 1/8th to Jihad activity.  [8]
USNCC provides a flow chart of how Islamic charity flows to terrorist organisations. [9]

Some observers have speculated that the clear and documented links to terrorism, via Sharia finance, may lead to legal challenges of Sharia products such as Sukuk bond, at least in US courts, for it is clear US policy to prohibit financing of terrorism.
Third, the inefficiency hazard.  Muslim professor of Economics Mahmoud El-Gamal says Islamic products, such as Sukuk bonds, are “poorly designed … grossly inferior and poorly constructed products for profit”. [10]
 They provide no innovation or economic alternatives, only exclusions.  Professor Timur Kuran has written at length about the outdated and inefficient nature of Islamic finance and documented how it has kept Islamic societies from robust growth.  And contrary the claim that Sharia finance weathered the Global Financial crisis, it has performed badly: see “Sharia finance a ‘huge flop’ in the UK” [11]. Why would we in Hong Kong want to pay for the creation of a system innately more inefficient? 
Fourth, the “ethical” hazard.  Much is made of the alleged “ethical character” of Sharia finance, and professor Sheng joins that chorus. We are supposed to buy the concept that the prohibition of interest is “ethical”, when in fact the time-value of money has underpinned western finance, (and recent ructions should not lead us to promote a system demonstrably inferior).  But there’s more to Sharia finance than prohibition of interest, or pork or alcohol products.  Sharia compliant “Sukuk” Bonds, for example, are prohibited from investing in products or construction that benefit non-Islamic religions; any project that promotes equal rights for women and gays; western defence industries (but not Muslim ones); western books, films, TV and radio.  And, of course, from any company having links with Israel. [12]
Fifth, the cost and policing hazards.  Proponents of Sharia finance such as Zaid Ibrahim & Co of Malaysia, emphasise that laws and regulations will need to be changed and that this will be an “on-going” and long-term process. [13] Laws to be amended include tax,  property, insolvency and securities laws; such amendments cost time and money.  Moreover, Zico stress there will need for Sharia finance law enforcement.  Is it right that the taxpayers of Hong Kong should pay for the creation of a religious financial system?   And that we should then police these religious laws? The Financial Services Authority of the UK has rightly decided that it ought to stay out of the minefields of promoting any one religiously-based financial system. [14]  It does so, it says, because it is secular and not a religious regulator.  Hear, hear to that.

Perhaps some of these hazards of Sharia finance are understood by the Hong Kong government.  For we have heard little of Sharia Compliant Finance since the announcement that it was planning to promote it in 2007. 

If so, then the policy of benign neglect of Islamic finance should continue, and ignore the likes of professor Sheng who is merely parroting Sharia-compliant progaganda.  To promote it is hazardous to our economic and cultural health.
Peter Forsythe was a senior Australian diplomat in Asia and founder of the Wall Street Institute in Hong Kong.  He is Director of Excel Associates, managing private portfolios.

[1] “The new challenge to Wall Street?”, South China Morning Post, 30 October 2010.  See full article below.
[2] Shariah’s “Black Box”: Civil Liability and Criminal Exposure surrounding Shariah-Compliant Finance.  David Yerushalmi. Utah Law Review, No. 3, 2008.
[3]  Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat Al-Salik, Amana Publishers, 1994. Available here.
[4] United States Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Texas, May 27, 2009.
[5]  Reliance of the Travelleribid, h8.17: “The seventh category [of distribution of Islamic charity, or Zakat] is those fighting for Allah,meaning people engaged in Islamic military operations for whom no salary has been allotted in the army roster.” (emphasis in the original).
[6] The 9/11 Commission Report, p 55
[7] Victor Comras, “Al Qaeda Finances and Funding to Affiliated Groups,” in Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, eds., The Political Economy of Terrorism Finance and State Responses: A Comparative Perspective (Stanford University Press, 2006).
[8] Looney, R.E. (2006) ”The Mirage of Terrorist Financing: The Case of Islamic Charities”, Strategic Insights, Volume V, issue 3. Here.   And Reliance, ibid, h8.17
[9]  ibid
[10Have we learnt nothing? Here come the “Islamic Credit Default Swaps”, Mahmoud El-Gamal, January 3, 2010.  Here.
[11] Sharia finance a “huge flop” in the UK, Battle of Tours, 15 August, 2010.  Here.
[12] Information from of a Doha-based Islamic finance expert, who has worked with Islamic Banks and Islamic finance with the World Bank, Islamic Development Bank and the African Development Bank.  May 2010. 
[13]  Demystifying Islamic Finance, Zaid Ibrahim and Co, May 2010. Original from Zico website here.  Copy here.
[14]  Financial Services Administration of the United Kingdom, January 2010: “The FSA’s attitude towards Shariah finance is that they will not provide any hindrances for it, nor will they provide any encouragement. This is because the FSA is secular in nature and not a religious regulator.” Here.

The new challenge to Wall Street?
South China Morning Post, 30 October 2010
Andrew Sheng
Since Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced Hong Kong's ambitions to be an Islamic finance centre, in 2007, there have been great advances in Islamic finance. I was in Kuala Lumpur this week attending the Global Islamic Finance Forum, which was attended by the whole glitterati of the Islamic world.
In the 1990s, Islamic finance was a fledgling, fringe industry. Today it has grown from roughly US$150 billion to about US$1 trillion. This is still small relative to some of the largest global fund managers and universal banks, who manage more than US$1 trillion each. But the double-digit growth and potential size of the market cannot be ignored. Some pundits think the market will reach US$2 trillion in the next five years.
There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, with 138 million in India and roughly 30 million in mainland China (plus 200,000 in Hong Kong). These are growing markets in terms of income and wealth. Since the Muslim community wants to invest in interest-free banking, Islamic funds have been growing in leaps and bounds. There are roughly US$800 billion in Islamic banking funds, US$100 billion in the sukuk (or Islamic bond) market and another US$100 billion in the takaful (Islamic insurance) and fund management business. In 2008, Hong Kong sought to attract Muslim investors by introducing the Hang Seng Islamic China Index Fund, which complies with sharia law.
With oil prices remaining at high levels, Middle East producers continue to generate surpluses that must be parked somewhere. With Western markets and economies under pressure, some of that money has moved eastward.
Will Islamic finance be a serious challenge to traditional Wall Street finance? That question deserves a good answer.
First of all, thanks to the good work of Bank Negara Malaysia and the central banks of Persian Gulf nations, the infrastructure for Islamic finance has been laid. It includes the establishment of an accounting standards authority (the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions); an international organisation to set regulatory standards (the Islamic Financial Services Board) and the Institute for Education in Islamic Finance. (**)
The basic principle of Islamic banking is the sharing of profit and loss, and the prohibition of usury. Simply put, interest is prohibited, but profit sharing is not. The distinctive elements of Islamic finance are its ethical aspect (the prohibition of usury and exploitation of the borrower), the preference for trading in real assets (rather than synthetic products), partnership between the investor and investee, and its governance structure (requiring a sharia council).
The point to remember in Islamic finance is that there is no Islamic global reserve currency. Although Islamic banks are growing rapidly, there is no assurance that they will not be subject to the problems of non-performing loans and bank runs that are endemic in commercial banking.
This week saw the launch of the innovative International Islamic Liquidity Management Corporation (IILM). It aims to help institutions that offer Islamic financial services to manage liquidity more efficiently and effectively. It addresses a fundamental problem of Islamic financial institutions: providing adequate liquidity in times of stress. Once an international lender of last resort is in place (to supplement national facilities, not replace them), there will be better confidence in the liquidity of the Islamic financial services industry.
The IILM is expected to issue high-quality, sharia-compliant financial instruments at both the national and cross-border levels, to enhance the soundness and stability of Islamic financial markets.
The signatories to the IILM Articles of Agreement are the 11 central banks or monetary agencies of Indonesia, Iran, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Multilateral organisations participating in the initiative are the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector.
Islamic finance has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go, since US$1 trillion is still small relative to US$232 trillion in conventional financial assets (excluding derivatives).
The real test for any challenger to Wall Street finance is whether Islamic finance will be the more efficient, more ethical and more stable of the two. Islamic finance fulfils the needs of the Islamic customer. Ethics aside, there are two crucial problems in finance - information asymmetry and the principal-agent relationship. Because markets are not completely transparent and information is unequal among participants, we tend to rely on trusted institutions such as banks (the agents), to act on our (the principals) behalf.
The recent Wall Street crisis demonstrated how complex financial engineering enables very smart bankers to make profits at the expense of the public purse. When they fail, the public bears the losses because they are too large and too powerful to fail. This is the 'moral hazard' created in the absence of the level playing field that is a precondition of free markets.
The real question is, given our unequal access to information, how do the savers and borrowers know when the banks have shifted the risk back to them, because of moral hazard? Islamic finance faces exactly the same dilemma. If Islamic finance theoreticians can solve this problem, they would be doing a great service to the rest of the world. Then we would truly have an alternative to Wall Street.
Andrew Sheng is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission and current adjunct professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management, Peking
** PF comment to para 6 above: Oversight bodies of Sharia finance include a number of known Jihadists.  Mufti Taqi Usmani, for example, is Chairman of the Sharia board of the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions, AAOIF, the Sharia finance accounting standards body.  Usmani he has been banned from travel to the United States and the UK for his financial ties to Jihadist terrorist organisations.  Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi sits on the board of some major Sharia finance institutions.  He also runs the charity Union of Good, which the US Treasury has designated a terrorist entity. Qaradawi has called Sharia finance “Jihad with money”.  There are many other gentlemen (it's always men!) of similar outlook sitting on Sharia finance bodies throughout the world, including on the very regulatory bodies professor Sheng lauds.

Monday 8 November 2010

"Geoengineering: Lift-off"

I've written before about geoengineering (here and here) -- that is, the concept of engineering a better climate.  Kind of fighting fire with fire.  If we messed up the climate by our industry, we can use our industry, perhaps, to fix it up, or mitigate the effects of our mess up.
The critics are understandably concerned: fighting fire with fire might just enflame the fire.  There are unintended consequences, it might take our eye off the ball -- the need, they see, to reduce carbon dioxide output. [photo: courtesy Economist]
On the side of the geoengineers:

Human Rights in Islam

Posting below, for the record, a recent-ish email to a friend and occasional reader of this blog, in response to his request for comments on a talk he's to give on the above subject.
[Click on image of book on the left for link to PDF of an Islamic view of Human Rights in Islam]

High Anxiety: the fear of naming the unnameable

In the wonderful 1977 Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety, there's a cute and amusing opening scene where Dr Thorndyke (Mel Brooks), the new administrator of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous, arrives at the train station, met by his new driver Brophy (Ron Casey).  Brophy goes to lift Dr Thorndyke's trunk: "I've got it, I've got it, I've got it", he says as he huffs and puffs the trunk half way up, then, Thump, down goes the trunk: "I ain't got it".  He tries again, ""I've got it, I've got it, I've got it", and thump, "I ain't got it".  One more time, till thump, "I ain't got it".  Dr Thorndyke rolls his eyes, puts his coat on the trunk and picks it up himself, hefting it easily.

Friday 5 November 2010

"How to keep terrorism grounded"

How do you view profiling?  Something common-sense, or an infringement of human rights?
I watched a TV show while in Koh Samui in June this year.  I forget which channel it was on, but it was a several-part series on Al-Qaeda and the pre-911 work on tracking terrorists in the US. It was a pretty good program, nicely balanced, I thought.
One of the comments by an FBI guy stuck in my mind.  Commenting on the suggestion that the FBI should have monitored people taking flying lessons -- the suggestion being that that could have stopped the plot -- he said something like "well, you know there are just so many people taking flying lessons at any one time, we just couldn't justify the time and effort to do that."

And he was not challenged on that by the interviewer.
[cartoon thanks to Dry Bones]

"Student convicted in anti-war attack on MP"

"She looked friendly. She was smiling, if I remember rightly," said [Stephen] Timms, who has made a full recovery. "I was a little puzzled because a Muslim woman dressed in that way wouldn't normally be willing to shake a man's hand, still less to take the initiative to do so."
[full article below]
I wonder if  Stephen Timms will be a touch leery next time he meets a "friendly" woman dressed "in that way"?  Would that be understandable?
[Muslim convert Choudry, above in a court drawing]

Hong Kong: the tippler's paradise

When I first came to Hong Kong in 1976, the proud boast were that we had the most number of Rolls Royces, though I guess that was per capita.  And the most amount of cognac drunk per head.  I don't think these are true any more; at least seeing all the Rollers in London's Mayfair during a recent visit.  And cognac?  I think we've moved on.
Lately we've had the most expensive bit of residential real estate: per square foot that is, on the Peak.  And the most expensive retail space is still, I think, at Causeway Bay.
Then we had a while back some measure that alleged that we had the "most intelligent" population in the world.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Anti-jihad lefties

In a recent post, I wondered about the disparity between critics of Islam and Jihad who are from the Right of the political spectrum and those on the Left.  It seems sometimes that those on the Right are the only critics, and that's not good if the Right gets conflated with the nihilist nutters on the Tea Bag far-right.  I noted some critics on the Left, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chrisopher Hitchens.

There are many more, of course, and I came across a partial list on the New English Review, in an article by Rebecca Bynum.  She is discussing an attack on the anti-jihad movement by one Bob Smietana, a paid up member of the Left, writing in the The Tennessean.

Stop the Stoning: One Law for All

From the UK's One Law for All

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani still faces execution
Global protests must continue
3 November 2010

According to reports received today, global protests have managed to prevent the execution of Iran stoning case Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani as of now. However the threat of imminent execution remains.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

"Confounding Fathers"

I hadn’t realised till recently just how kooky is the right in America.  Sure, there’s Sarah Palin, who would make foreign policy from her patio (“I can see Russia from my backyard”).  And then the fruity Tea Baggers, sure.  But just how nutty were they?  Just constitutional troofers?
I’ve just read “Confounding Fathers” in last week’s New Yorker Magazine (Oct 18) which is an eye-opener.  There’s Glenn Beck, a founder Tea Bag, who recently converted to Mormonism.  That’s puzzling. I can understand how someone brought up in Utah in a Mormon household would be a Mormon.  But convert

Monday 1 November 2010

Cruising in Chinese waters

Welcome and intriguing news on the weekend that Zhuhai, just up the road from us Here in Hong Kong, is going to allow visiting yachts without the usual paperwork hassles. Other ports like Shenzhen, are considering doing same.
[photo here: nearly, but not quite, Zhuhai.  It's Big Wave Bay in eastern Hong Kong, with waves not quite so big, but real surfies taking real waves, last sunny Sunday]

Zhuhai smooths the waters for owners of luxury yachts
Coastal city aims to become regional hub for pleasure boats
Fiona Tam and Ng Kang-chung
Updated on Oct 30, 2010
Luxury yacht owners, Zhuhai welcomes you.