Audience, please grade my work. gambitch [
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
News has it that the chief executive of a prominent healthcare-related charity foundation has withdrawn a defamation lawsuit filed against the country's leading newspaper, which had alleged that the charity in question had installed in its headquarters - a building granted to it in the name of the estate of a kidney disease patient - several rather lavish washroom fittings.
The article or articles in question essentially charged extravagance from a foundation best known for filling six or seven weekends a year with charity fundraising television on the nation's major channels, each of which raises quite a good sum of money.
Other details to have emerged from the aborted court case include how the chief executive was on close to US$15,000 a month, collected 12 months' bonus in each of the last two years, and occasionally flew first class when travelling. It is perhaps fair to say that some of the donations raised went into his salary and perks, more than the average person may like.
What is particularly interesting about this court case is how, on previous occasions, the man and his organization had succeeded in bringing defamation lawsuits against people who alleged the same kind of thing. Indeed some may be put off by the fact that this organization had, all to itself, an office building that is no fewer than ten storeys tall and looks rather lavish on both interior and exterior. Like I said, this is actually bequeathed from someone else - the organization to this day insists that it didn't ask for this, a point I'm happy to leave alone. But that hasn't done much to soften people's perceptions about how this organization is rich - some might say too rich.
This is the first time the man and his organization have been foiled in their attempts to use the courts to dispel that myth. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this time it came up against a journalist and the country's biggest newspaper, who could hire the lawyers that had both the reputation and the ability to get the job done (and I'm recognizing both parts of that, not just the former). The previous charges were brought against comparatively ordinary individuals who did not have organizational backing by anyone, so it was easier to get them to shut up.
But this time they got themselves a much tougher opponent - and lost.
Well, okay, they didn't exactly lose. But the unwillingness to proceed with the defamation case suggested that there was no way to hide or obfuscate the facts, not against hotshot reporters and a legal team that was not to be trifled with. They were rich, and extravagant enough to have flaunted that wealth in little-noticed but still somewhat opulent ways. They have also been incredibly successful in delivering a truly world-class community support group that financially worked for its beneficiaries, of which there are many. But these two things are not mutually exclusive.
What I think is particularly upsetting is how this organization has today crossed the line and started canvassing funds to help out cancer patients and sick children. (Just this weekend, I'm told, they put up another television charity gala to call for donations.) Sure, they're doing a good deed. The problem is, they've stepped into someone else's turf. Now if no one else was taking care of the cancer-stricken then they would probably have been forgiven, but just this weekend, a friend of mine told me he saw volunteers from the Cancer Society - a presumably unrelated organization - trying to get people on the street to put coins into those little metal tins. And this is an organization that has been around for many years too.
Corporatization of charities done with the aim of maximizing the efficiency of the donor dollar may be altogether noble, and it's always a good thing to try to raise more money so more people can benefit better. But when a charity decides to expand into other disease markets, rather than try to share their techniques with other charities and healthcare organizations so that they too would do better, that's when I think that charity has crossed a certain unspoken line.
It's not the best of examples, but this does remind me of Enron. More specifically, of how Enron started out as a traditional natural gas pipeline company but had become, in under 20 years, a behemoth of a multi-business organization that traded in gas, electricity, water and some even say fibre optics networks. The manner of diversification is rather overwhelming, but in Enron's case it was not trapped with a company name that limited its options.
In this case, however, there still is a name issue involved. Does helping patients suffering from other diseases specifically require the pull of a brand name whose very name itself suggests that these other diseases were not supposed to be its specialty? More importantly, is there something about the secret of their success that cannot be shared with other potential partners?
And, at the risk of inviting a defamation suit myself, Bush America style, will the management of multiple charity funds by one same umbrella organization lead to the possibility of either conflicts of interest or accounting gimmickry, either of which would hurt the organization, its beneficiaries, and its ardent support base in whose interests this organization 'elected' to withdraw its defamation suit today?
Personally, I say the case isn't over yet. This is only the beginning. They've got plenty to do if they want to restore the public's trust in them. Now all they need to do is work out how to start. gambitch [
Monday, July 11, 2005
You know the latest drama series to hit the television screens is going to be a lousy dud when, in the opening half-hour of the first episode, you see the following scenes:
a) a dad killing himself and his family; b) a woman screaming hysterically while being wheeled around by some mysterious madman; c) a wedding turns completely disastrous when the groom goes missing - and dies later
... and you recall that this is not even a crime drama.
Unfortunately, I have parents dumb enough to watch any drama that's on at the designated hour, because they've done the same thing for more than twenty years and they can't bring themselves to break the habit.
Me? I'd rather watch the news channel, or do something else, just so I don't have to see this rubbish. gambitch [
Sunday, July 10, 2005
A somewhat racist joke doing the rounds in Southeast Asia has it that Malays (not Malaysians, Malays) are a bunch of lazy beach bummers. Unfortunately, this stereotype is often reinforced by lots of facts and factoids.
For example, a non-Malay who would like to set up a business, any business, in Malaysia apparently needs to have a Malay partner in his business when he fills out his application form to register the business. The Malay partner then gets to pocket half the profits of that business, even if he does absolutely nothing. Now, while this may or may not be totally true, it is illustrative of a general state policy in Malaysia to take care of its indigenous people - known locally as the bumiputeras.
This policy of special safety nets and guarantees for the indigenous population, even when that group makes up the largest group - Malays make up more than half the population, while other indigenous groups make up another 10%, according to the US State Department - can sometimes backfire rather gloriously. For example, one tale has it that the Malaysian government once decided to give away some seeds to people living in the rural areas, in the hope that these people will plant them and contribute to the plantation agriculture economy. According to the tale, the non-Malays did as the government wished them to, while the Malays sold their seeds to these non-Malays so that they could get some cheap alcohol.
The truth of this tale I have never verified, so it may all be rubbish, but every urban legend carries a sliver of truth. In this case, that sliver is that as a group, Malays are not known to be particularly enterprising or willing to put in hard work. People of other races look at the Malay lifestyle and sometimes envy them for being so laid-back, but the flip side of that is that they don't really work as hard as the Chinese or Indians sometimes. That may or may not be a bad thing depending on your perspective, and one of those people who thought it was a bad thing was former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who once publicly cried while talking about what he saw as the Malays' laziness, leading to a self-inflicted continued state of general poverty. Their poverty isn't necessarily abject, along the lines of inner-city slums in Tokyo or New York, but Malays can do better, insisted Mahathir.
Why am I mentioning all this? Well, today I saw a report saying that some Malay politicians in Malaysia were saying that meritocracy was hurting Malays' access to quality education. Apparently not enough Malays were making it into engineering and medicine courses at public institutions of higher learning - only about 25% of students in engineering are bumiputeras, for example, compared to the target of 55% used in the quota system. In medicine and dentistry the figure is slightly better at 35%, but it's the same kind of tale in many other competitive fields. Some politicians called meritocracy a form of discrimination and oppression that did not contribute towards improving the lot of Malays and other indigenous peoples.
Personally, I think this is little more than a case of looking for convenient targets to bash. I happen to believe in meritocracy, but meritocracy works out on the assumption that everyone is willing to work hard in order to do well, and those who choose not to work hard do so knowing and accepting the trade-off, and are not going to complain about the system killing their chance to make out well. The moment you try to have it all - get rich for less work - and want it built into the system so that it will hand it all out to you, that's when meritocracy will not work. You can't envy your neighbour for having the money to buy a good car, and then want the rules changed so that you'll get the same car he has, or even better, get his car.
It is not just politically incorrect, but also outright offensive, to suggest that Malays are lazy and stupid by genetic design, and therefore can never do well in school no matter how hard they try. That almost has a whiff of Hitler-style anti-Semitism in it. But it's perhaps worth considering whether an alternative theory, that for any number of reasons, a sizeable proportion of Malays and other indigenous peoples aren't that keen on giving education everything they've got, might be valid. If this is true, then what Malaysia has is really a problem among its Malay community, which is its majority community. And the key to fixing that problem would actually be to work out how to inspire Malays to do better.
What we're probably seeing instead right now is merely a political move to make it easier for the bumiputeras to make it into the rich and famous club. Unless we have concrete evidence quoted by these politicians showing that a sizeable group of academically gifted bumiputeras are being systematically shut out in favour of weaker-performing non-natives, there is no reason to believe that meritocracy constitutes a deliberate system of discrimination. But the use of such language is quite possibly motivated by a need to shore up the ruling coalition's voter base through enacting populist policies. Sadly, populism may not always be the best thing for society at large.
But that's the risk taken when you have a democratic system of choosing your leaders. Additionally, that's the risk taken when democracy reduces to a "what's in it for me" question for the voters, rather than a question of what's the best way to advance society. The latter requires a level of social maturity and intelligence that is so priceless because of its rarity. Instead, modern democracy and voting's often about quid pro quo between voter and political party. gambitch [