Thursday, February 28, 2013

What next for the Muslims?

The Bodu Bala Sena has rejected the compromise offered by the ACJU. The battle has been joined by the JHU, a partner of the GoSL, with minister Ranakawa launching a book on halal. The Daily News carries on its campaign and a mosque has reportedly been stoned.

Nobody pushing the campaign shows any sing of slowing down or pulling back. It's our way or the highway, as far as they are concerned.

The BBS issued some ultimatums, unless they are complied with, further intensification in the campaign will take place. Further clashes are inevitable.

In the short run, the community which is already showing flexibility, will have to work out a quick contingency plan on how to deal with a world free of certification.

In the long run? Well, its their way or the highway, so better start looking for greener pastures, the economy is heading for a crash anyway so may as well as move on. As for the Christians, the brighter ones may have started figuring out what they need to do, the dimmer ones had better start waking up.

The clock is ticking, the spectre is returning.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Another leopard run over in Yala, is a boycott the only option left?

When someone suggested that a boycott of the Yala wildlife park be organised after a leopard was killed I was not in favour. I thought what was needed was a proper system of visitor management. What a fool I was. Several more leopards have been killed by visitors since then, in the latest instance the carcass being fed to the crocodiles to cover their tracks.

The jeep drivers who are responsible for this are connected to a powerful politicians from the South and cannot be disciplined. The park rangers and Wildlife Department have no power to administer a proper system of visitor management, even if one were designed for them.

The only option now left is to boycott the damned place, let the jeep drivers and their mafia rot in the tropical heat. They will eventually turn to poaching, I reckon, but that was also inevitable. Every conceivable resource is being raped, anyway, why should the wildlife parks be exempt?

In any case, traveling in this country is proving to be a nightmare and the constantly rising fuel costs make it am unaffordable luxury. Even the outstation roads are crowded with in-disciplined trishaws, vans and buses; negotiating the roads is extremely stressful and sometimes quite dangerous.

Many of the most picturesque locations have been defiled by construction and signage. Illegal, ugly, badly constructed beer gardens, restaurants and hotels dot every nook and corner; telecom towers and windmills sprout like mushrooms.

There is growth all right, but it is an ugly, unhealthy growth, like the toadstools spring up overnight. Ceylon may have been paradise, Sri Lanka may have been nice, but now that we have developed to the stage of New Banana Republic, its looking downright ugly.

I would urge responsible citizens not to feed the monster, find your amusements elsewhere and leave those animals alone.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mozart for beginners

How should someone who likes the big, stirring works of the Romantic era approach Mozart? Mozart's music brims with melody, he could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as 'difficult'.

Nevertheless, tastes differ, and for someone enamoured with the Romantics,  I would imagine that the difficulty lay in adjusting to the scale of the music of the Classical period, which is much narrower in terms of sound.

Perhaps the most dramatic of his works are his operas so excerpts such as the overture to the Magic Flute and Figaro would make a good beginning for someone wanting to explore.

If sufficient interest is aroused, then perhaps the delightful Flute and Harp concerto, and the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin  and Viola could be attempted. After that the piano concerti, starting with No.14.

For an absolute beginner, what better way to dip ones fingers in than with Eine Kleine Nachmusik. Go on, give it a try, its a lot easier to listen to than to pronounce.

Bodu Bala Sena gets its way on one point

The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has succeeded in getting a ban imposed on irreversible methods of family planning.

The BBS came out with a 10 point manifesto at its rally in Maharagama a couple of weeks ago, banning of certain birth control methods was one of them. (See the bottom of this article for the manifesto).

Point 4 of the manifesto wants to ban purchase of land 'using funds from the Middle East'. The Government banned the sale of land to foreigners last week, could this be a further concession to the BBS?

They seem to have won concessions fairly fast, could a ban on maids to the Middle East be next? 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The charms of Mozart

I returned from a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka that included Mozart's last symphony. I thought the SOSL did rather a good job, holding together a rather unwieldy symphony.

Chatting to a friend after the concert, she confessed that she did not like Mozart. A friend who performed in some chamber concerts with her stated much the same thing: while they liked the big romantic works, Mozart was sneered at.

Sometimes this sentiment is not difficult to understand. Even his worst critics will usually admit that music is pretty; I think what happens is that the ease of accessibility is assumed to mean that the work is shallow and superficial.

Although the scale of the orchestral forces used by Mozart is small (compared to that of the Romantics) the lack of scale should not be mistaken for lack of depth. His music is truly profound, it is just that it is not sketched on the same grand canvas as that of his later successors.

Musical taste is a constantly evolving phenomenon, sometimes it takes a while to grow into Mozart. I just hope that my love of Mozart is not indicative of the vast chasm that must be crossed to get through to the charming young lady who was so dismissive of the Master.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Farce as diplomacy?

We must laugh, if we are not to cry. This is a credo that I have been preaching for some time, usually to many a concerned citizen, worried about the state of the land.

The Foreign Ministry seems to have decided to follow this advice and has chosen to provide a new source of entertainment to the diplomatic community in Colombo and the world at large. This has taken the form of a letter from the Golden Key Depositors Association to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.

The depositor's association, moribund for some years, was given a sudden lease of life during the impeachment of the Chief Justice. A little cash and some empty promises were sufficient to mobilise them to support the Government position. Golden Key was tangentially involved in the impeachment process so presenting the depositors as victims of the CJ and using them to muster support for the Government position made some sense from a propaganda perspective, regardless of any questions of justice, which were in any case irrelevant.

The Foreign Ministry, using a principle of throwing everything at the enemy, including the kitchen sink, has brought the GK depositors into the fray.

Poor Navi Pillay, used to dealing with complex and sensitive questions will now have to try to work out what Golden Key was, how it failed and the relevance of the depositors request:

"We request the UNHRC to provide assistance to the 9000+ victims of human and fundamental rights violations in the Golden Key debacle and to take immediate action not against the Government of Sri Lanka, but against both Mrs Cecily Kotalawala and Dr Ms Shirani Bandaranayake for committing despicable crimes against humanity unprecedented in Sri Lanka’s history. 
 Their parting missive is:
“Sri Lanka is now headed by our national hero, His Excellency Mr. MahindaRajapaksa the President who united the country after eradicating the world’s most brutal Liberation Tamil Tiger Eelam Terrorist Organization (LTTE). The Tamil separatist war, lasting nearly 30 years, was funded by stooges of the so-called Western World. They wanted Sri Lanka divided and ruled by their lackeys,”
Surely, Navi Pillay will not know what hit her and the Foreign Ministry certainly believes in laying it on thick. Some members of the depositors association may well end up with plum diplomatic positions. Perhaps they should also change the national anthem to this ?

Pork on the Parliament menu

The Daily Mirror has reported that as of yesterday, the canteen in the Parliament will now offer pork. This is a question that came up a long time ago, but why did the Speaker, in the midst of all this controversy, decide to throw more fat on the fire?

Even if there were perfectly good reasons to change the status quo, it is incredibly stupid to have done so now. Unless of course the timing was deliberate, calculated to send a message to the Muslims. Actions speak louder than words and this only serves to support the contention that the on-going campaign has their support.

The Government is very good at words and has succeeded fooling a surprisingly large number of people for a long time. Sooner or later people will have to learn that they need to watch its actions, rather than be seduced by its words. 

We seem to be sliding dangerously fast down a very long spiral, wonder where it will end, and who will be next?

Another hotel raided - for having pictures and statues of the Buddha ?

This was something that I heard on a Sinhala news station (FM 100.0) on the way to work. I can't seem to find references in English online.

Apparently the incident took place yesterday, after the Sinhala Ravaya received information that a hotel in Induruwa had pictures and statues of the Buddha displayed in an 'inappropriate' manner. The Sinhala Ravaya visited the hotel and apparently agreed that the the way the images were displayed 'would cause pain of mind to buddhists',- my rough translation of what the spokesman said.

Some altercation or argument had followed with the German owners of the hotel and the police had been informed.

Related posts, here and here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

New Urban Price Index shows 20% inflation

A local investment bank, Capital Alliance, (CAL) has developed a new measure of urban inflation that puts inflation at 20.6% in the year 2012.

When looking at inflation, it is important to note that he impact of increases in prices is something that is unique to each individual; dependent on the spending pattern of each individual.

To take a simple example a person who smokes will be affected by increases in tobacco prices but someone who does not is remains unaffected. Increases in fuel prices will have a greater impact on people who have to commute long distances, increases in school fees only affect households with school going children and so forth.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to measure inflation in some way because it affects the well-being or standard of living of people.

In simple terms, a person's standard of living is dependent on two things; their level of income and the buying power of the money that they earn.  If prices remain absolutely static, each increase in wages will translate to an increase in disposable income. However if prices rise faster than wages, disposable income will fall. Therefore it is not just wage increases that matter but their relative increase in relation to prices.

It is worth remembering that while wages will rise once; or if one is lucky, twice a year. Prices can rise every day, hence the importance of battling inflation. In order to slay the beast, one must at know it, therefore the need for some way of measuring how prices increases affect the average citizen.

In order to be realistic, an inflation index must be based on the average expenditure of a typical household. Defining this is fraught with difficulties but as there has been enough debate on the subject, statisticians have developed standard methodologies that are broadly acceptable.

A government that wishes to hoodwink its people can do so by changing the methodology. Many analysts have already accused the Government of manipulating the index, so an independent index is welcome. CAL says their index applies to about half of all city dwellers. Excerpts from the report:

CAL developed the Urban Price Index (UPI) to measure the inflation middle class households in cities endure with a greater degree of accuracy than the gov’t’s CCPI. The CAL UPI uses the Laspeyres* method to calculate changes in prices with 2012 as the base year. CAL assumes a monthly income of LKR 80k/household of four with 56% of the income spent on goods in the basket (Jan 2012). The basket includes food and beverages, communication, transportation and energy costs. The CAL UPI shows a 20.6% YoY increase in the costs of living for an urban household while the CCPI depicts only a 9.8% increase. The CAL UPI applies to over half of all city dwellers.


Income Level
We have assumed a LKR 80k average middle class household income per month, taking two working members in a family of four. This is based on the “Household Income and Expenditure Survey - 2009/10”. CAL has adjusted the 2010 average urban household income of LKR 60k (which represent +54% of Sri Lankan urban households in 2010) to LKR 80k (based on per capita income growth).

CAL UPI Basket
The items in the CAL UPI basket are samples that represent a wider range of goods and services purchased by urban middle class households. There are 30 individual goods and services in the basket. Certain items have been taken as proxies for others not included, but exhibit similar price changes. For example, Chili powder is in the basket, but turmeric and pepper are not. Expenditure on pepper (and other spices not in the basket) is allocated to chili powder proportionate to spending.
CAL UPI is based on the Laspeyres method – CAL’s UPI basket will not change over time and therefore should provide a more accurate depiction of price changes.

The following items have not been considered in the CAL UPI basket.
Health - Primary level universal health care is provided free of charge in Sri Lanka. Further, a majority of the middle class population is covered by insurance schemes paid by the employers.

Education - Sri Lanka has a free, compulsory education system for primary and secondary students up to the age of 18.

Accommodation – For a more objective analysis, we have not included rents.

CAL produces some interesting research and I think they are a pretty decent outfit, check their website. Some of their research is published, although the report on inflation is not. I'm sure they will give you a copy if you call on their office.

Their index may not be perfect but it is definitely a better reflection of the impact of inflation on urban households. I certainly feel the pinch myself, money just seems to evaporate, especially over the past few months. Any comments from readers will be welcome.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Good Sri Lankan food: essential factors

An old travel guide once said that Sri Lankan food, while not ranking amongst the great cuisines of the world, was tasty, if a little hot; sentiments that I broadly agree with.

Now, pampered soul that I am (ie typical Sri Lankan male), cannot cook; but I do fancy myself as an armchair critic. My critical mind was thus deeply concerned when I thought I detected a deterioration in my mother's cooking.

I was trying to figure out why and I noticed that the deterioration coincided with the arrival of some new Pyrex cooking pots; ones that could be taken off the fire and put straight on the table. Once finished with, they could be put into the fridge with no further ado. An enormous saving in labour compared to the traditional clay "chatty" pot. Unfortunately the convenience comes at a cost; somehow the clay pot enhances the flavour of the cooking, something the Pyrex cannot do.

The second revelation came when I visited a friend's estate and the servants cooked us a simple meal in the traditional way.  The first mouthful made me realise that there was a distinct smoky taste to the food; something that enhanced the experience immensely. The smoky taste is imparted by the wood fire, used for cooking. I believe this is also a factor, apart from appealing to our primaeval subconscious; open fire under starlit skies; of a good barbeque.

Therefore, the secret to really good local food is to have it cooked in a clay pot, on a wood fire. I ventured to make these helpful suggestions for improvement to my mother but was sent packing, in short order.

After a further visit to my friend's estate and examining the stove in the blackened walls of the kitchen, I realised the difficulty with wood fires. Lighting them is problematic and, once lit, controlling the flame to ensure steady cooking is also quite tricky, thus not possible unless one has good staff to help. The soot in the kitchen and the messiness of washing the clay pot (it does not scrub easily and needs to be soaked) means that it is no longer viable for small households in the city.

Nevertheless, I think this is the type of food that should be attempted when on holiday. Estate bungalows are generally equipped for this type of cooking although many have switched to gas for convenience but it is worthwhile, when making arrangements to see if the 'appu' can be persuaded to cook a few things the old-fashioned way. Perhaps this is something that smaller hotels could also consider offering clients, to distinguish themselves from the mass. Simple traditional food, cooked in the traditional way, with fresh local ingredients should be a good selling point.

The many domestic goddesses who used to inhabit the blogosphere will no doubt relish the opportunity to break out grandma's cooking implements, so let me know the results, or better still, invite me over to taste the food? I'm sure my advice warrants it.  


Friday, February 15, 2013

Who should regulate Halaal products?

Since this has become a subject of heated discussion at home, it is worth reading this  a more distant view, from The Economist.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tourist arrested for having a tattoo of a Buddha?

This is what was reported on this site. Other news sites carry similar stories.

The question is, under what law was she charged? Presumably something twisted to fit the purpose. It was only a few months ago that tourists were arrested for taking photographs of statues.

More worrying is that this seems to demonstrate a new level of hyper-religiosity, which in the context of the on-going anti-muslim campaign seems to suggest that an explosion is around the corner. Is anybody still even talking of a 'peace dividend'?

We should also carry a warning to tourists, perhaps it should read: Beware! The natives are not friendly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sexism and gender based violence in Sri Lanka

An old family friend of my Uncle, when explaining something to a girl from Britain remarked that "in the East, it's a man's world". This elderly gentleman would never have dreamed of being discourteous to a woman, let alone ill-treating one, but it typifies the latent sexism in our society.

Gender based violence in Sri Lankan cinema  was the subject of a discussion this evening, held in connection with the One Billion Rising campaign to stop violence against women. I confess that the actual presentation went over my head but the discussion afterwards proved to be fruitful.

There is some awareness the harassment that women face on a daily basis but few are aware of some of the types of abuse that take place at home and work. I refer to a common practice whereby a boy's first sexual experience would take place with a servant of the house.

I first encountered this practice as a 17 year old in the A level class, where one of my classmates was describing an 'encounter' with his servant and was happily inviting a few of his friends over to do the same. I, having sneaked through my father's collection of Penthouse magazines and, in passing,  read an article about "When No means, No", knew this was rape, but not knowing how to confront them, kept silent. Later I found this practice to be rampant, most would say at least half the boys in a certain sort of school went through this.

For some it was a just a passing phase. For others it was a habit that they would return to in later years, often when drunk. This I learned from a female friend who had to rescue her servant from her brother-in-law, who would habitually return to the practice of his school days when drunk. My friend had to threaten to rat on her B-I-L to her M-I-L to get him out of the servant's bed. The experience sickened her and eventually contributed to the ending of her marriage (to another sexist), but that is another story.

This behaviour is impossible to justify, but it may owe its origin to an earlier, feudal practice where the landlord or 'Hamu' would take a woman from the estate to be his concubine.

With many more women entering the workforce there is also an increase in the abuse of power by male managers. A friend of mine who used to work for a large multinational was narrating a tale of how the managers would wait, almost drooling at the thought, for the next batch of interns to come in. They would pounce and groom them for sex. I asked if the company had no code of ethics. He said as long as it was voluntary, and indeed it was, nobody could say anything. What may have been missed however was that this was an abuse of a power relationship, which should have been covered in the manual of ethics. My friend and I were cursing our poor upbringing which prevented us from doing the same.

A similar problem exists in the tutories with some teachers abusing the pupil-teacher relationship for sexual gain. Again, things are entirely voluntary but the pupil-teacher relationship, just like the boss-subordinate relationship, is a relationship of power. Women are attracted by power and it is the abuse of this power that presents the ethical dilemma.

Perhaps these are minor quibbles, compared to the bigger abuses going on, but something to reflect on nevertheless.

One of the other points that was raised in the discussion was economic abuse, but this was quickly dismissed since around 40% of the workforce was estimated to comprise women.  A subtle factor may have been missed however, the number of women working as teachers.

I have come across at least a couple of instances where women have been steered out of careers in the corporate world to become Montessori teachers. This is done by their husbands ostensibly to give them a better work-life balance, but as one husband confessed to me, in order to ensure that they do not start affairs with male colleagues.

The Montessori schools tend to be run entirely by women so insecure males feel safe in shunting their wives into this, away from the preying eyes of other males. Again there is no compunction or coercion used, just gentle persuasion, so not a major problem in itself, just that it is a more acceptable manifestation of an old prejudice.

I of course, being a man of enlightenment betray no such prejudice, although I may admit to being pampered a bit. Just a bit.

I don't cook, I don't wash clothes, I can't iron; all these mundane things are taken care of. I don't really know how, food appears, dirty clothes disappear and appear, washed and ironed, as if by magic. I spend my time at the gym, at concerts, reading or conversing friends and improving my mind. I fully subscribe to the concept of sharing work and say I would gladly share daily chores with a potential wife, even though I've never lifted a finger at home.
I'm pretty sure I am a model citizen, many would agree. Am I, really? Perhaps we all need to turn the searchlight inwards and to ask ourselves a few hard questions?


Sunday, February 10, 2013

One Billion Rising: A campaign to stop violence against women

One Billion Rising Sri Lanka (link to FB page) is the local chapter of a worldwide campaign to stop violence against women.

OBR Sri Lanka will be organising a demonstration at Lipton Circus at 4.30pm on Thursday, 14th of February 2013 followed by a candlelight vigil at the same location at 6pm, dedicated to all the women and children who have been abused, harassed, raped and killed because of Gender Based Violence. They invite everyone to come dressed in black, red or pink to show your solidarity towards the movement.

Its a good cause, I think one should support it in whatever way one can, not least by speaking up whenever we witness it, in our houses, families or amongst friends.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Land sales to Chinese and land taxes: rewriting Economics

Last year the Government imposed new taxes on the sale or lease of land to foreigners. The tax on the sale of land has been around for a while but what was new was the extension of the tax to cover leases and companies owned by foreigners.

Companies incorporated in Sri Lanka are, in every other aspect, treated as resident. However in the case of land, local companies will be treated as non-resident, if a foreigner owns more than 25% of the equity.

Ostensibly, the policy seems to be aimed at discouraging foreigners from owning or leasing land. Yet property development by foreigners seems to be a central plank in Government economic policy.

Can these two apparently contradictory stands be reconciled?

The only way in which these can be reconciled is if the Government is prepared to waive the taxes for chosen developers, which has transpired in the purchase of some prime land by the Chinese. In other words, citizens will encounter great difficulty in selling land to foreigners but not the Government.

In effect, the Government is securing for itself a monopoly on land sales and, as with all monopolies, enables it to earn what are termed "super profits". Thus if a citizen owns a piece of land that a foreigner wants to buy, the cheapest way sell it would be for the Government to buy the land and then sell it to the foreigner, after waiving the tax. This means that profits that should legitimately go to the citizen are being appropriated by the state.

The Chinese deal however looks even stranger because apart from the tax being waived, the property is also being sold below the value specified by the Chief Valuer. Instead of a super profit being earned we have the the opposite: less than normal profit being earned. How can this be?

The normal laws of economics do not seem to apply or, if they are to apply, will do so only if the assumption is made that the super profit was indeed earned, but did not accrue to the state.

This assumption however is clearly absurd, therefore we may conclude that the laws of economics need to be rewritten. A good subject for your PhD, Mr Cabraal?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sri Lanka's Muslims under threat

Sri Lanka's Muslim's have become the target of an organised campaign of hate. How should the Government and ordinary citizens react to this?

 The reaction of the UK government to a controversy surrounding traces of pork DNA being found in halal products is instructive. Following the discovery of horse meat in beef burgers, testing was done on a variety of meat products, wherein traces of pork DNA were found in halal food served in prisons.

The reaction from the UK government was swift: the supplier was suspended and investigations launched simultaneously by the Prison Service and the local authority. The Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK, called an urgent meeting of major retailers and suppliers on Monday, to ensure that everyone is fully aware of their responsibilities.

"It is the responsibility of food businesses to ensure the food they sell contains what it says on the label. We are considering, with relevant local authorities, whether legal action is appropriate following the investigation."

The Prison Reform Trust said it welcomed the immediate apology and investigation. Its director Juliet Lyon said: "This is not a matter of dietary preference but of Islamic law.

"There are clear hospital and prison rules that halal meat must be on the menu."
"This lapse will have offended and distressed high numbers of Muslim prisoners and their families so apologising, suspending the supplier and investigating the incident are the right steps for the Ministry of Justice to take." (from The Guardian)

Back in the Paradise Isle, the President instructs the Secretary to the Ministry of information and Mass Media "to take immediate action against those electronic and print medias, which spew venom against the Muslims."

What? Is the media the problem? It is the organisations behind the campaign, the very organisations that met the President that need to be brought to heel, not the media.

The President asked the organisations not to engage in activities seen to be promoting communal hatred and said that people should be mindful of attempts to tarnish the image of the country.  

Mindful of attempts to tarnish the image of the country? Really? A more wishy-washy, watered down statement could not be imagined, worthy of Ranil Wickremasinghe, who for his part has remained deafeningly silent on the matter. No condemnation, apology or even a firm statement and nothing, beyond a vague promise to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (which a long-drawn out, time consuming thing), of any action.

What a contrast to that of the UK Government which regards its Muslim community which has existed only for around fifty years as equal citizens.

To come back to my question, what should citizens do? There does not seem to be much, but on the eve of independence day, perhaps we should make it a point to go out of our way to patronise Muslim owned shops.

I've never shopped at No Limit, I never even realised it was Muslim-owned, I don't really need to shop for clothes either but I will drop in and buy something. Even if its only a pair of socks, a point needs to be made.