Sunday, 19 March 2023

My Letter Of Support To Former PM Paul Keating On Australia's China Policy, Copied To The Government

Former Australian PM Paul Keating created quite a stir recently when he criticised the Australian press for neglecting its professional duty and acting as a mouthpiece for the pro-US and anti-China establishment.

He got a bit of pushback from the affected parties for his remarks.

A few days later, I saw a tweet that solicited messages of support from Australians who agreed with Mr Keating, and the tweet also encouraged respondents to copy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

I decided it was best to stand up and make my voice heard, so I sent out the following email, copying both PM Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong:

Subject: I support Paul Keating's stance on Australian policy re. China


CC:, (The copy to Albanese bounced, since he seems to have discontinued the use of this address, but Penny Wong's office acknowledged receipt of my mail.)


As an Australian citizen and voter, I want to make my opinion clear (hence copying the PM and FM) that I am alarmed about my country being frogmarched into a coming proxy war being orchestrated by the United States against China.

1. China is not a threat to Australia. It is our largest trading partner. The Australian and Chinese economies are complementary, and Australia will continue to grow and prosper if we maintain cordial relations with China.

2. Any talk of Chinese invasion is rubbish. Not only does China not need to physically invade Australia when it can acquire Australian resources through trade at significantly lower cost, it is also logistically infeasible. This argument by the anti-China lobby is deliberately emotive but groundless.

3. All talk by the US of freedom, democracy and human rights is well-known to be selective and used for geopolitical reasons only. The US has never criticised Israel or Saudi Arabia for their appalling human rights records because they are allies. (Now that Saudi Arabia has defied the US by signing a deal with Iran under China's auspices, I expect its human rights record will be taken up by the US in a predictable manner.) Besides, when even the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) has not complained about China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims, why is the West (which waged two decades of war against Muslim countries and killed millions of people in the War on Terror) so concerned about Muslims in China? It is apparent that the Uyghur Muslim issue is not a real one but just a handy stick to beat China with. Why is the treatment of Muslims by the Hindu right-wing government of India not mentioned by the same people who seem so concerned about the Uyghurs? Probably because India is considered an ally for now.

4. The US is only interested in preserving its hegemony, nothing else. It has no allies, only useful vassal states that it uses in proxy wars. If we are a truly sovereign nation, our foreign policy should be aimed at securing the interests of the Australian people, not at furthering the interests of the US.

5. We have seen how devastatingly Ukraine has been wrecked in the US's proxy war against Russia. Regardless of the moral posturing over Russia's "unprovoked aggression" (yeah, right), we know that the US has been deliberately stoking this conflict for years, and it became blatantly obvious with the 2014 Victoria Nuland-orchestrated coup that deposed a democratically elected Ukrainian government and installed successive puppet regimes. An elected Australian government has a sacred responsibility to ensure that Australia does not suffer a similar fate as Ukraine. We have this dire example before us, and cannot feign ignorance of the fate that awaits a US proxy.

6. It is alarming in the extreme to see the orchestrated establishment and media campaign reaching a crescendo on China. The US is stoking a conflict with China over Taiwan, engaging in deliberately provocative actions when it officially has a One-China Policy that only recognises the PRC. Not only is the sudden interest in Taiwan unwarranted, the prepping of Australia and Japan towards greater militarisation should ring alarm bells. If a war breaks out, it will be Australia and Japan that will do the actual fighting as US proxies. The US will not put boots on the ground. It will supply arms (on a strictly lend-lease basis, of course, which will keep our children and grandchildren in debt), but it will be Australian and Japanese soldiers who will actually lay down their lives.

7. Although we keep repeating the phrase "Lest we forget" when we talk about Gallipoli, it's clear that we have never learnt the basic lesson from that tragic episode - that Australia should stop fighting other countries' wars.

8. The Scott Morrison government was extremely irresponsible in destroying a hitherto harmonious relationship with China with ill-considered and unnecessary calls for a hostile investigation into the origins of Covid. The fallout in the form of Chinese trade sanctions on Australian goods, though costly to our citizens, was only economic. The Albanese government initially seemed to be repairing that damage and resetting relations with China, but recent actions have lurched in the opposite direction, and will drag us beyond a mere economic rift to actual military conflict.

9. The nuclear element of the AUKUS deal is particularly alarming. In the event of hostilities with China (which is what the war hawks are clamouring for), our government would have made Australia a target for a nuclear attack by escalating our military capability to a nuclear level. It is a shockingly irresponsible thing for a government to do.

10. Spending $368 billion of taxpayer money on this irresponsibly dangerous initiative is not just a waste. It is going to be funded through massive cuts to welfare, healthcare, education, infrastructure and other areas of the economy that require committed government support. This fiscal irresponsibility is shocking too.

11. There is much talk of Australian politics being illegally influenced by Chinese government interests (as with the Sam Dastyari episode), but the fact is that American influence on Australian politics is far, far greater, yet unremarked upon. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is being given carte blanche to conduct its lobbying activities out in the open, when its chief sponsor is known to be the US arms industry. This organisation must be shut down, its foreign employees deported and its Australian employees investigated for crimes no less than treason. The interests of Australia and its citizens are not just being ignored but actively jeopardised in favour of those of a foreign country. This is a treasonable offence.

In sum, as a citizen, I am horrified that an elected government has so dramatically turned its back on the interests of its own people and succumbed to the pressure of a fading superpower that wants to use us as cannon fodder to maintain its hegemony. I am not privy to the threats the US must have used to get our government to comply, but they are no excuse for this egregious betrayal.

On a personal note, I am of Indian origin, not Chinese, and therefore my views cannot be dismissed as being motivated by cultural affinity towards China.

The government needs to know that its recent steps with regard to China are causing extreme alarm among its voting citizens, and there will be political repercussions if it does not reverse course immediately.

Ganesh Prasad

Sunday, 5 February 2023

The "Civilisation State" - Phoenix, Werewolf Or Chimera?

Two essays, two biases

Two essays debating the "Civilisation State" have recently appeared.

The first one by Bruno Maçães is titled "As Western Liberalism Declines, Civilization States Return".

The second one, a partial rebuttal by Shashi Tharoor, is "Civilization States Are Profoundly Illiberal".

Both authors agree on one point — that a civilisation state represents a political system different from Western liberal democracies. Their titles are largely self-explanatory, although Maçães straddles the fence on whether he approves of "civilisation states" or not. His tone seems to be one of resignation at their inevitability, but one can also detect some pleasure at the deserved demise of Western liberalism. Tharoor is resolutely against civilisation states and for Western liberalism. I would encourage you to check out both these essays for yourself before reading my take on them.

At the outset, I have to say I found Maçães's essay much harder to understand, and I suspect it's because (with all due respect to his scholarship) his definitions of crucial terms seem ambiguous and shifting, and some of his arguments appear to contradict one another. He does raise some interesting and topical points though, and hence his essay cannot be dismissed for its lack of rigour.

Tharoor's essay is more relatable, although I believe his arguments are driven more by idealism than by realism.

I set great store by intellectual honesty, which is the ability to see things as they are, and not as one wants them to be. Discussing a topic with intellectual honesty can be confronting rather than comforting. So while Maçães's meandering article is hard to understand and pin down, he doesn't shy away from making his reader uncomfortable by touching upon some unpalatable truths. Tharoor's vision is a more soothing one, but one that I suspect is more divorced from reality. There needs to be a third viewpoint (and a fourth, and a fifth...)

As the author of an essay on why Indians need to understand their own civilisational history to make sense of the modern world, I feel compelled to provide one such alternative viewpoint.

Setting things straight

For a start, I believe Samuel Huntington (author of The Clash of Civilizations) deserves far more credit than he has received. His advocacy of a civilisational model of world history, which he contrasts against both narrow nationalism and against universal liberalism, is the Goldilocks model that seems just right. The civilisational view is in contrast to the globalist or humanist view of the entire world being one society. While the latter is a wonderful ideal, it is clearly not a view shared by the majority of the world's people, only by a few liberals. Civilisations are also different from nation-states in being far more long-lived, because they are based on more durable aspects of people's lives than political borders — aspects such as genetics, geographical origin, language and religion. And so, Maçães is wrong when he makes an arbitrary and unsubstantiated distinction between civilisation and identity ("Identity is the mutilated corpse of civilization."). The two concepts are in fact inseparable. Civilisation is meaningless without identity.

Maçães also outrageously misquotes Huntington on the topic of Ukraine. Huntington did not say that Ukraine and Russia belonged to the same civilisation! In fact, he explicitly spoke about a "civilisational fault line" that ran down the middle of Ukraine. According to him, the Eastern part of Ukraine belonged to the Orthodox civilisation, just like Russia. The Western part (what he called Uniate Ukraine) belonged to the Western civilisation. Huntington was prescient enough to see a civil war in Ukraine as being far more likely than a war between Russia and Ukraine. To be fair to him, that is in fact what the Ukraine war is mainly about — the wrenching of the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) away from the Ukrainian nation-state and its incorporation into Russia, where it belongs in a civilisational sense. The results of the popular referenda in Crimea and the Donbas bear out Huntington's prediction.

What compounds this intellectual crime is Maçães's abandonment of objectivity. His visceral distaste for Russia and his disingenuously hagiographic view of Ukraine do his reputation no favours.

If Russia today represents the rule of instinct and unreason, Ukraine is the affirmation of light and progress.

(Yeah, right. Ukraine was ranked the second most corrupt country in Europe in 2021, but after Feb 24 2022, it has magically transformed into the affirmation of light and progress!)

Russia under the perpetually inebriated Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) was a liberal democracy. That period saw the worst decline in the country's living standards, an alarming rise in alcoholism, and an unprecedented drop in life expectancy, all in the service of oligarchs who acquired the state's resources for a song. Then Vladimir Putin took charge, arrested his country's dangerous slide, reversed it with an iron fist and — dare I say it — made Russia great again.

The resurgent Russia of today is (unapologetically) no longer liberal. Yet we are expected to cheer for liberalism because.

I also respect Huntington a lot for his admission that he did not understand the Indian civilisation. Huntington with his admitted ignorance in fact made far more insightful remarks about India than many others who claim to be knowledgeable about the country. Far from being ignorant about the nature of Indian civilisation, his comments showed that he recognised its complex, hybrid and layered nature. The Indic civilisation (which is the term I use in order to distinguish it from both the Indian nation-state and the Hindu religion) is not a simple one to describe or to understand. To his great credit, Huntington did a far better job of it than many other authors I have read.

What then is the definition of a "civilisation state"?

Here's my view. If a nation-state is to be considered a "civilisation state", its operating principles must go along the grain of its people's inherent and historical values and beliefs, rather than values and beliefs that are alien to them. That's it.

Note that this is not a value judgement on whether a civilisation state is "better" than one that is organised differently. It is merely a definition — my definition — one that is clear and understandable, and one that I will stick to without shifting goalposts or contradicting myself. (Mr Maçães, please take note.)

From this definition, China and Russia are not the first civilisation states to make a resurgence in our times, contrary to what Maçães avers. We have had civilisation states in our world for decades, even centuries. Muslim countries governed by Sharia law are civilisation states. Their operating principles align with the historical values of their people and are largely accepted by them.

And so, this is the very first point I would make on the topic of civilisation states. They are not a phoenix newly rising from the ashes of liberal states. They have always been around. We just haven't been conditioned to view them as such.

The typical blind spots of the Indian liberal

Tharoor does an able job of demolishing Maçães's confused and confusing essay, providing us with a detailed delineation of all his contradictions and fallacies.

Where Tharoor himself falters is in letting his arguments be guided by the knee-jerk reactions that Indian liberals suffer from, with respect to a couple of topics.

The first of these topics is China.

"China bad" is an article of faith among both Western and Indian thinkers. The groupthink that occurs across these two diverse and disparate cultures lulls both sides into a belief that they are being objective and rational, when they are in fact in an echo chamber of transcontinental dimensions.

Neither the West nor India really understands China. I would go so far as to say both shrink from attempting an unbiased analysis of China, because of their deepseated fear that an honest portrayal of a successful rival will show up their own failures of governance in a way that leaves them no excuse. More on this in a bit.

Tharoor's second knee-jerk reaction is to the notion of the civilisation state that the BJP has constructed, which is of course based on a sectarian Hindu identity designed to exclude India's minorities. However, a rejection of the BJP's model of a civilisation state should not lead to the rejection of the notion of a civilisation state itself! Tharoor is throwing out the Indic baby along with the Hindutva bathwater. A civilisation state isn't inherently a werewolf that will devour its citizens, and so India doesn't have to reject this model to save its people. It is possible for India to be a civilisation state, with the crucial caveat that the civilisation be Indic, not just Hindu. The Indic civilisation is a tapestry that contains layers upon layers of genetics, culture, ideas and innovation, from both internal and external sources, folded in upon itself over the course of millennia, not just centuries. Hinduism is a crucially important element of the Indic civilisation, but if all other strands are pulled out of it, the fabric will simply collapse and cease to exist. If Hindus fail to understand this, it is deeply ironical, since it means that they are unable to experience the "Viswaroopa-darshanam" of their civilisation, and they can only see one limited view of it.

Liberalism versus a civilisation state

Before going any further, it's important to first address the basic confusion around liberalism and a civilisational state. Maçães says different things at different times. He labels liberalism as Western in his title, but later asserts that it is universal. Tharoor meekly agrees with Maçães's latter assertion that liberalism is universal, not Western, and that civilisational states each have their indigenous ideological basis that sets them apart from these universal ideals.

So is liberalism Western or universal?

Let's not pussyfoot around the nature of liberalism, particularly its provenance. Liberalism is a good idea in that it postulates the equality of every human being, and their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, just because it is a good idea and is applicable to all people equally, it does not follow that the idea is universal! This is the fallacy many fall victim to.

If I have a theory about all of humanity, that does not make it a "universal" theory. It is still just my theory, even though I claim that it applies to every human being on earth.

The Western liberal worldview is just that. It is a view of all of humanity, but it is still only a Western worldview. It is not "universal".

You want proof? The shibboleth is the notion of "tolerance" as opposed to "mutual respect". Would an advocate of liberalism look at the practices of non-Western civilisations in a spirit of mutual respect, or would their attitude be one of tolerance at best, and condemnation at worst? You know the answer.

In support of his argument that liberalism is not Western but a universal, or civilisationally neutral, set of ideas, Maçães says "Liberals wanted their political values to be accepted universally, much like a scientific theory enjoys universal validity [...] Western civilization stopped being a civilization, or at least it stopped seeing itself as a civilization. [...] Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework of relations."

I disagree. Western civilisation did not jettison its own civilisational views in favour of a neutral set of ideas. The ideas of liberalism — that came out of the European Enlightenment — were as Western as the ideas they replaced. The West then tried to make these latter homegrown values seem universal. It cajoled and pushed other cultures, nation-states and civilisations to adopt them wholesale because they were now "universal".

They were not. They were always Western values.

[Maçães also treats us to the heretofore unheard-of idea that even Europe could possibly reject the universalist liberal model and pursue its own version of a civilisation state! He writes a number of words about this without saying much, but in the spirit of intellectual honesty that would not shy away from confronting ideas, I will venture an opinion on what such a European civilisation state would look like. Shorn of its more recent ideas of liberalism, the West would regress to being a white supremacist society that is also devoutly Christian. In short, a European civilisation state bereft of liberalism would simply be a Fourth Reich with Catholics and Protestants at each other's throats. So the idea that Europe (or the West) could possibly turn its back on liberalism does not prove that liberalism is not Western. It just shows that liberalism is a more evolved set of  —  Western —  ideas.]

Maçães makes the important point that in spite of liberalism's vaunted universality, it cannot overcome more visceral instincts: "Liberalism wanted to build a lasting edifice of reason and logic, but it turned out to be incapable of reaching large areas of collective existence. It remained, to a considerable extent, powerless over the brute facts of social life to which no reasoning could be applied — nationalism, fascism, and religious and racial bigotry being just a few examples."

I agree with this observation. India adopted a constitution inspired by the European Enlightenment. Its ideals may be noble and desirable — but they are not Indian.

This is not a value judgement, just a statement of fact. Anjum Altaf quoted Dr Ambedkar in this article "The Real India": "Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic."

Rather than be outraged by this observation, the intellectually honest way forward would be to acknowledge its validity and explore whether democracy is the only mechanism to run a country fairly, i.e., the only system that can ensure good governance.

Democracy and individual rights

We need to digress to discuss an important issue that is often glossed over — the difference between the related concepts of a democracy and a constitutional republic. Democracy refers to the prevalence of the will of the majority, whereas constitutions tend to protect the rights of the individual, even against the will of the majority. So what exactly is the ideal society — one that is democratic (and reflects the will of a possibly bigoted majority), or one that is governed by a constitution that places limits on the will of the majority when it infringes the rights of the individual?

Note that a pure democracy would be no different from a civilisation state, because the country would be governed according to the (traditionalist) views of the majority, with no liberal constitution to impose an extraneous set of constraints.

This brings us to the crux of what disturbs liberals when a civilisation state is discussed. People shouldn’t be allowed to get whatever they want, because they may want the “wrong” things. They need a civilising influence such as a constitution inspired by Western liberalism, which constrains what they can ask for.

Squaring the circle

I'll stop being snarky about liberals now, because I'm probably one myself. I too like the values of the European Enlightenment and would like to see them widely, if not universally, adopted.

What doesn’t sit right with me is the notion of dictating to people what they should want, by constraining their choices from above. That doesn’t seem liberal to me. To paraphrase Tharoor, it’s a liberal constitution that is profoundly illiberal, because it acts as a constraint on pure democracy (the will of the majority).

What then about individual rights, freedom of speech, the right to life and liberty, and so many other important ideas? Should we force these noble ideas on uncivilised non-Western people, or would that make us illiberal?

The situation isn’t as hopeless as it looks, though.

The key to incorporating new ideas into a civilisation state is … social engineering. If a people can be taught to appreciate certain values such that they willingly adopt them, then when the organising principles of the state are aligned with the values of its people, one could have a civilisation state that is also liberal!

Societies are not static. People can be influenced. This is how civilisations develop and evolve. They absorb influences from internal reformers as well as through external examples, and they morph. Civilisation states can therefore be engineered. They are not givens.

The mistake that people in democracies make is in thinking that change can only come to societies from below, and that social engineering from above (by governments) is inherently evil.

Not so. Much-reviled communist governments have rooted out feudalism, educated their illiterate peasant masses, reduced inequality and empowered women on a scale that would put liberal democracies to shame.

So that's the solution to the liberal conundrum. Not to impose from above a liberal constitution that is alien, but to educate and socially engineer a population to incorporate liberal values into their thinking. Warning: it may take generations, for every civilisation needs to live through its own Enlightenment for such values to become self-evident and to stick.

Also consider that Western liberalism may not be the only moral path. Non-Western civilisations have highly evolved moral concepts of their own that often go unrecognised. [See Section 4.3 of my essay for a detailed discussion.]

The China syndrome

Let's return to the uncomfortable topic of China. China is feared by democratic societies because it has become such a success that it cannot be dismissed like the Soviet Union. The democracies (and only the democracies!) demonise China because they cannot afford to have their populace ask uncomfortable questions about why their purportedly more responsive system has not done as much for them as an evil, authoritarian communist dictatorship has done for its citizens. How has China managed to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty and into the middle class in a single generation? How has it managed to eliminate extreme poverty? How did it manage to protect its citizens from the pandemic, with far fewer hospitalisations and deaths per-capita than the greatest democracies, even while being the only significant economy to grow during this period? These questions cannot be answered honestly in democracies. Indeed, these questions must not even be asked. Instead, the Chinese civilisation state, with its unique and successful relationship between the rulers and the governed, must be cast as one characterised by the "suppression of minorities, repression of free speech and outlawing of political dissent".

Pre-emptive delegitimisation. It works. Up to a point.

(If you think "liberal democracies" don't persecute dissidents for free speech, I have two words for you: Julian Assange.)

Good governance - It's not a Western idea

So when we strip away the myth of Western civilisational superiority, we see that constraining the will of the majority on the basis of Western concepts (however noble some of us may think they are) is neither ideal nor justifiable. We are forced to focus on the only thing that should matter — good governance.

Plato's Republic is a seminal Western treatise on the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, but it's hardly unique. The Indian concept of "Raj-dharma" that rulers must abide by, the Chinese notion of the "Mandate of Heaven" that a ruler can forfeit if they are unworthy, the Sharia law of Islamic states, all of these point to a concept accepted by every civilisation — that people should be governed according to a set of impartial and clearly defined rules, and not according to the arbitrary whim of a ruler.

Clearly, non-Western civilisations too have developed standards and rules of governance that are focused on the welfare of the governed. So why should the concept of civilisation states be greeted with such horror?

(If one is cynical enough to point out that these rules of governance are mainly observed in the breach, it may be worth considering representative democracy in the West and asking if elected representatives make laws and decisions to benefit their constituents or the lobby groups that fund their election campaigns.)

Liberalism in international relations

Tharoor makes one more point against civilisation states.

"In international politics, similarly, the notion that civilization states can follow their own standards overlooks the need for universally accepted norms to sustain world order"

This is however a non sequitur — a nation's internal governing principles have nothing to do with how it behaves in the comity of nations! A country can be a democracy at home while claiming exceptionalism and being a ruthless hegemon abroad, or it can be a dictatorship at home while aligning scrupulously to international law. How a country behaves towards others is of relevance to the outside world. How a country conducts its internal affairs is no one else's business. The latter statement is not because dictatorship or the denial of human rights is acceptable, but because the alternative (of exporting freedom and democracy using regime change and drone warfare) has proven such a humanitarian disaster and such a shameful scandal.

It is a smug belief in the superiority of liberal societies over all others that results in the condonement of crimes against the people of those other societies.

So rather than be liberal in international relations, let's be libertarian instead. Let's leave other countries alone.

Let's not regime-change them when they're weak.

When they're strong, let's not provoke them into war to make them look like the bad guys.

Tharoor makes a point about fig leaves in the context of internal governance, but he fails to acknowledge its flip side.

"Just as the devil can quote scripture for his purpose, the advocacy of “civilization states” all too often masks the malign intentions of tyrants."

This is the flip side: The advocacy of "universal values" like freedom, democracy and human rights all too often mask the malign intentions of hegemons.


At the end of the day, these are the only ground rules that will work:

- Nations must obey International Law, with none considered an exception to the rules.

- Internally, nations should govern themselves using organising principles that resonate with their people's values and beliefs. They should be civilisation states rather than govern their people using an alien set of rules.

- The values and beliefs of people are not rigid and unchanging. They can be influenced in a variety of ways - by their own governments' social engineering efforts, by their own internal grassroots movements, and by the seductive soft power of other cultures.

The civilisational state is therefore not a chimera. It is very real. We are seeing more examples of successful societies that call themselves civilisation states, and this is giving rise to concern and even panic among others. The complacency and hubris of states that adopted liberal values (whether homegrown or imported) are being shown up.

We can calm our panic by realising that (1) civilisations are not static but evolving, and (2) liberal democracy is just one of the means to a desired end. That end is good governance, and every political system claims it as its objective.

It's time for some intellectually honest conversations about systems that work for their people and systems that don't.

Saturday, 28 January 2023

An Absurd Question, A Cop-Out Answer - Review Of Movie "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

[Warning: Spoilers galore!]

I was very intrigued by the billing of this "cross-cultural romantic comedy" that had a number of celebrity names attached to it - Director Shekhar Kapur, screenwriter Jemima Khan and top stars Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi.

As the film began, I was also happy to see that it starred Shazad Latif, whom I'd seen before as Ash Tyler in Star Trek - Discovery.

The film began promisingly enough, but to cut a long story short, it posed a question that was illogical, and then answered it with a cop-out ending.

I won't bother going through the entire plot with its twists and turns, since you can find those in other reviews. Let me explain why I felt the way I did about this movie.

The movie moved quickly onto its plot premise - the phenomenon of arranged marriages (also called "assisted marriages") prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. A number of pros and cons were aired in early dialogues, so the question set up by the movie was clear:

Are arranged marriages better than "love marriages"? The definition of "better" is of course vague. Is it the durability of the marriage itself, the happiness of the partners, the stability of the family setup for children, the harmony of the larger families involved, etc.?

This question strikes me as absurd because it sounds like "What arrangement of deck chairs would be better at preventing the sinking of the Titanic?"

The necessary conditions for a successful marriage should be no secret:

- Mutual respect and trust

- A willingness on the part of both partners to learn, adapt and change themselves

Additionally, if the partners possess complementary strengths and have the patience to communicate in a way that is aligned to their partner's thinking style, they're set to be a winning team.

Needless to say, the circumstances under which the two partners come together is irrelevant. They could have met on their own and fallen in love, or they could have been introduced by their parents and agreed to marry before they had significant feelings for each other. Heck, they could even have been forced into marriage, for that matter!

So that in a nutshell is why I thought the film went completely off-target. I have seen examples of successful and unsuccessful "love marriages" in real life. I have also seen examples of successful and unsuccessful arranged marriages. It's clear as day to me that this categorisation is completely irrelevant when it comes to predicting the success of a marriage or the happiness of a couple. Without mutual respect and trust, and without a willingness on the part of both partners to learn, to adapt and to change themselves, a marriage cannot "succeed" or be a happy one. It has nothing to do with whether the marriage was "arranged" or took place after the two partners had fallen in love. The film didn't bother to raise this most important aspect of the topic at all (although it made an attempt to address the issue of marital fidelity, which is related to trust).

At the end of the movie, the arranged marriage of the male lead (Qazim Khan) fails, because it turns out that his bride was in love with someone else, and was forced by her parents into marrying him. They divorce and she leaves to rejoin her lover. Predictably, Qazim then pairs up with his childhood neighbour and friend (Zoe), who has been cataloguing the entire process of his arranged marriage.

In the style of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" then, the movie turned out to be "Two Love Marriages and the Failure of an Arranged Marriage".

The reason I call this a "cop-out" ending is because this seems to be the only acceptable answer that filmdom anywhere is allowed to provide: Love-before-marriage good, arranged marriage bad.

Even in India, where over 90% of all marriages are arranged, Bollywood and regional cinema only promote a romantic narrative where people fall in love and often battle parental and societal opposition to get married. The big screen doesn't reflect societal reality at all!

Is it possible at all for a movie to be honest and matter-of-fact about this topic, I wonder? Or will fear of box office failure forever keep storytellers from telling the unglamorous truth about what a happy marriage really needs?

[If you liked this post, check out a related one - "Why Marriage Is Hard Work - Two Psychometric Models Provide An Answer"]

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Why It Makes No Sense For Russia To Agree To A Ceasefire In Ukraine Now

In his article "Ukraine: The Other Side Of The Story", author Paul Heywood-Smith has taken a refreshingly different position on the conflict than the conventional Western one. He has made a genuine attempt to understand the situation from Russia's perspective, and ends the article with a call for a ceasefire.

Russia should cease all current operations to not only bring more territory under its control, but also to weaken the Ukrainian resolve by attacking infrastructure.

Ukraine should cease all military operations to expel Russians from such territory as they are in control of.

And third parties, particularly the US, the UK, European and Nato countries, Canada and Australia, should cease providing weapons and materials which enable the war to continue.

From a humanitarian perspective, I'm all for an immediate ceasefire that will end the killing and destruction at once. In fact, the war should never have been allowed to happen. The US bears primary responsibility for provoking Russia with existential security threats and supporting the extreme persecution of Russians in Eastern Ukraine. (Read this detailed analysis if you don't agree.)

The humanitarian perspective notwithstanding, I don't believe it makes any sense for Russia to agree to a ceasefire at this stage. The following excerpts from my tweets, suitably elaborated, will explain why.

From Russia's perspective, it is poised to inflict such a crushing blow on Ukraine, NATO, Europe and the US that it can demand virtually anything next year.

Ukraine is not just a theatre of military conflict. It will permanently alter global perceptions and hence the world order. This is Russia's chance to show up the US-led West as a loser that no country will side with hereafter. Why stop short of such a victory?

Even today, when it should be clear that Ukraine is on its last legs, Western commentary talks about "Putin's miscalculation", "Russia's futile war", etc. The Western media narrative is deliberately divorced from reality. A ceasefire at this stage will expectedly be spun as a Russian defeat.

Russia needs to pursue the war to the point when reality can no longer be denied, and the West's lies are exposed for what they are. At that point, the West's defeat at the hands of the Russia-China alliance will be complete.

That's why I believe a ceasefire now is not in Russia's interest.

Some may argue that the West, or at least the moderate sections of Western society, need to agree to this change in the world order. There is a further view that these voices are more likely to be influenced by China's peaceful, development-based approach rather than a Russian military victory.

I have two points against this argument.

1. The Russian and Chinese approaches are complementary. Russia is showing up the West's impotence, while China is holding up an alternative model based on development & trade as opposed to conflict. Since it's clear that Russia and China are on the same side, the West doubly loses.

2. This may sound harsh, but it really doesn't matter what any faction in the West thinks, once the world order has been demonstrably changed. The West is simply not as relevant as it likes to believe. Power has been shifting eastwards for years, but perceptions tend to lag reality. It will take a dramatic event such as a comprehensive Western rout in Ukraine to make it obvious to everyone that the world has permanently changed.

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

My Letter To PM-Elect Anthony Albanese (May 21, 2022)

I wrote a letter to Anthony Albanese on the eve of his election victory on May 21, 2022.

In it, I outlined my hopes and expectations as an Australian citizen for the path his government would take, in a decisive break from the disastrous direction of his predecessor Scott Morrison.

I'm making this public now because I'm disappointed that Albo seems to have been coopted by unelected powers, just as previous governments have been. This post by Bruce Haigh explains just how bad things have now become.

My letter:

Subject: Congratulations from a first-time Labor voter, and a manifesto challenge for you

Dear Albo,

Congratulations on your landslide victory!

Although I have been a loyal paid-up member of the Australian Democrats for over two decades, I crossed the floor today to vote for you, and I am now taking the liberty of writing to ask you to do certain things.

You have the mandate of the Australian people, Albo, and you can and should grasp the nettle and announce some bold changes in direction early on, while you still have the initiative and the momentum. All opposition will crumble if you display boldness and determination.

1. Reset the relationship with China:

It's high time Australia stopped fighting other countries' wars! We've fought Britain's wars in the last century, and we've since switched loyalties to fight America's wars. We have not covered ourselves in glory by joining the US in Vietnam, or in the invasion of Iraq. Australian foreign policy ought to be made in the interests of the Australian people, not in the interests of foreign governments.

The Morrison government has made an indecorous lurch towards the US by scrapping a deal with France, and signing up to a dangerous policy of nuclear confrontation with China by purchasing nuclear submarines. His government has also plunged us into a trade war with China, our biggest trading partner, in a further bid to please the US. In return for our pains, the US has thrown us under the bus by replacing Australian exports in the Chinese market with their own.


I want you to re-establish communications with President Xi Jinping at the earliest and normalise our relations with Asia's most important power. We should be aware that we are just a middle-ranking power, and should therefore be extremely wary of being drawn into a conflict between superpowers that will only damage us. The task before the Australian government in this area is two-fold:

- Keep the country out of any conflict between the United States and China. It's not our war, and it would be highly irresponsible on the part of any Australian government to plunge us into a conflict that will only do us enormous damage. - Re-establish favourable trading relations with China so we can both increase revenue from our exports, and tackle domestic inflation through the import of affordable Chinese goods.

(I'm of Indian origin, not Chinese, so I have no personal bias in saying all of this.)

Oh, and there's this sneaky lobbying outfit for the American arms industry that pretends to be a respectable policy think tank, and which illegitimately influences Australian defence and foreign policy to the detriment of the interests of our own people. Yes, I'm talking about the ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute). Declare this an illegal organisation and shut them down. Expel their foreign employees. Investigate their treasonous activities. They have been doing great damage to Australia's interests by controlling our governments and turning Australia into a US client state for their proxy conflicts.

2. Make a strong and unequivocal commitment to renewable energy:

You need to make an early statement that is symbolically powerful. I suggest you produce a lump of coal in parliament (like Morrison did), but throw it forcefully into a dustbin!

Follow that up with clear and ambitious targets to phase out fossil fuels from every sector of the economy.

Renewables are cost-effective and ready to go. The only thing missing is Federal Government support. It's time for you to change that, and dramatically. The foot-dragging by past governments has been utterly shameful.

3. Tackle housing affordability:

Everybody knows the dirty little secret of why housing affordability isn't being seriously tackled. The flip side of making houses affordable for new buyers is making asset prices stagnate or drop for existing home-owners. In other words, you can't please one set without displeasing the other.

So far, the home-owner crowd has been calling the shots because we're the establishment. But as a home-owner myself, let me tell you that I don't mind a stagnation or drop in asset prices if it will help hundreds of thousands of young individuals and couples buy their first home. It's shameful for a problem of affordability to be dragging on for so long in a supposedly prosperous country, and it's time a government did something about it.

Hint: we all know that tinkering with the demand side like providing first home-owner grants only fuels demand and leads to a further rise in prices. The only thing that will work to reduce prices is an increase in supply. Release more crown land, at a faster rate than before. It will absolutely piss off existing home-owners, but you'll be on the right side of history.

There are lots of other problems you'll have to tackle, of course. The old demons of inflation, unemployment and underinvestment in public services. But those are problems with known solutions, and need little imagination or courage from a leader.

The issues I've outlined require true leadership.

I have placed my trust in you with my vote, Albo. I hope you'll rise to the occasion.

All the best!

Ganesh C Prasad (Federal constituency of Mitchell, NSW)

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Why Marriage Is Hard Work - Two Psychometric Models Provide An Answer

This insight crept up on me rather gradually. There is a fundamental tension that is inherent in the necessary ingredients of a successful marriage, and it takes conscious effort to overcome this tension.

Two psychometric models explain this tension well, and their creators are Donald O. Clifton and William Edward "Ned" Herrmann. I learnt about both of these models as a result of short courses that I had the privilege to be nominated for during my career. I probably wouldn't have come across them otherwise.

1. "Strengths-Based Psychology" by Donald O. Clifton

The testing tool invented by Donald Clifton has been known by several names - The Gallup Test, StrengthsFinder, Gallup Strengths Assessment and Clifton Strengths Test.

It describes 34 themes that make up a person's personality.

  1. Achiever - a constant need for achievement
  2. Activator - impatience for action
  3. Adaptability- ability to respond to the demands of the moment
  4. Analytical - objective and data-driven
  5. Arranger - ability to manage all the variables in a complex situation to produce the most productive configuration
  6. Belief - possessing enduring core values
  7. Command - ability to take charge
  8. Communication - ability to make people listen to you
  9. Competition - the desire to win
  10. Connectedness - awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings, and the resulting sense of responsibility
  11. Consistency - preference for balance, fairness, predictability
  12. Context - orientedness due to an ability to join the dots
  13. Deliberative - risk-aware and careful
  14. Developer - ability to see potential in everyone
  15. Discipline - dealing with an unpredictable world through structure that you impose
  16. Empathy - seeing the world through the eyes of others
  17. Focus - having a clear destination
  18. Futuristic - inspiration from what can be
  19. Harmony - ability to find common ground and reduce conflict
  20. Ideation - the ability to find new perspectives to explain phenomena and address challenges
  21. Includer - accepting of all, non-judgemental
  22. Individualisation - ability to draw out the best in each person
  23. Input - tendency to collect facts and objects in the hope that they will one day prove useful
  24. Intellection - introspective, fond of thinking
  25. Learner - excited by new knowledge
  26. Maximiser - in constant quest of excellence
  27. Positivity - contagious enthusiasm
  28. Relator - trusting, sharing, risk-taking in vulnerability
  29. Responsibility - taking ownership of tasks
  30. Restorative - energized by challenge, finds solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems
  31. Self-Assurance - confidence not only in one's abilities but also in one's judgement, natural acceptance of accountability
  32. Significance - need to stand out, to be recognised, a striving to be exceptional
  33. Strategic - ability to see patterns where others see complexity, to see around the next corner, to make selections that work
  34. WOO - Winning Others Over, can break the ice, strike up conversations with strangers and making connections

I learnt about the Strengths-based model in the context of organisational team-building. I learnt to accept that people weren't all the same, that they had different strengths, and that rather than try to fix weaknesses in their people, the aim of a manager should be to put together teams of people with complementary strengths, so that the team as a whole could deliver effectively on all its tasks.

This was a rather refreshing approach to management. I had heard of the approach of "playing to one's strengths" in the context of individual self-development, but I was hearing it for the first time in the context of team-building. Organisations need not worry too much about deficiencies in their people. They just have to make sure that their teams as a whole are able to make up for the deficiencies of the individuals they're comprised of.

For example, I worked in the IT Architecture division of several companies, and our job was to "guide investment and design decisions around technology". Not everyone in our team had identical strengths. For example, some were deep thinkers who could come up with innovative models, but who lacked the ability to communicate these ideas effectively and convince other people. There were other people in the team, though, who may not have had the same ability to create models, but who could create effective visualisations of these models such that they were instantly understandable to decision-makers. Together, these two groups of very different people were effective in creating and communicating innovative solutions to the rest of the organisation. That was a practical example to me of complementary skills being effective in an organisational context.

2. The "Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument" by William Herrmann

To my mind, the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) is a far more insightful and useful model than the two other models commonly used by organisations - Myers-Briggs Personality Types and the DISC Profile. Unfortunately, this excellent test is not available free of charge, and it is usually only administered through organisational sponsorship.

HBDI identifies four unique thinking styles that people tend to use in various combinations. Some people have a single, dominant thinking style. Others have a combination of two, three or all four, with each style having a certain "weight" relative to the other three.

Each thinking style is given a colour code.

  • Blue - Logical, Analytical, Fact-based, Quantitative
  • Yellow - Holistic, Intuitive, Integrating, Synthesising
  • Red - Interpersonal, Feeling-based, Kinesthetic, Emotional
  • Green - Organised, Sequential, Detailed, Risk-aware

These thinking styles are then mapped to the four quadrants of a circle, with blue on the top left, yellow on the top right, red on the bottom right, and green on the bottom left.

Thus, blue and red are in opposing quadrants, just as yellow and green are in opposing quadrants. These pairs of thinking styles are completely "opposite" to one another.

More interesting are the adjacent thinking styles. They have certain common traits. The reason is that the four directions of the circle represent certain modes of thinking.

  • Left - The "left brain", realistic and commonsensical
  • Right - The "right brain", idealistic and intuitive
  • Top - the "cerebral" brain, cognitive and pragmatic
  • Bottom - the "limbic" brain, visceral and instinctual

Adjacent colours therefore have a certain affinity.

  • Blue and Yellow are both cerebral rather than limbic. They think cognitively about things rather than react viscerally.
  • Yellow and Red are both right-brained. They rely on feeling and intuition rather than pure logic.
  • Red and Green are both limbic rather than cerebral. They have instinctive reactions to situations.
  • Green and Blue are both left-brained. They are grounded and realistic.

One of the core themes in a course on HBDI (after all participants have been tested and assessed as to which quadrant(s) they belong to) is the challenge of communication. In an organisation, people need to communicate with others, explain their perspectives on situations, negotiate for resources, convince decision-makers in favour of one or another option, etc. When people have very different thinking styles, they can often talk past one another instead of connecting. This is because people are used to expressing ideas from their own perspective, and this perspective may make little sense to a person with a very different thinking style, who is used to seeing things in a very different way.

Effective communication requires a knowledge of the other person's thinking style, and a formulation of one's argument in terms the other person can naturally understand.

Communication between people with thinking styles in adjacent quadrants is relatively easier than communication between people in opposite quadrants. They can rely on certain common thinking modes to find common ground. It is a far more difficult task for people in opposite quadrants to be able to communicate meaningfully.

It is common for people in the Blue quadrant to believe that they are "superior" thinkers, but the HBDI consultants take great pains to emphasise that this is not so. None of these four thinking styles is "superior" to any other. Each has its own strengths. It is necessary for people to treat their colleagues with respect, regardless of what their predominant thinking style is, and to make honest efforts to communicate with them in a way the other person can understand.

Marriage and the Confluence of the two Models

It struck me somewhere along the journey of my own marriage that the notions of complementary strengths and thinking styles were both hugely relevant to the way my wife and I interpreted life events and responded to them. We have had arguments and conflicts, and we have also had successes and triumphs. This is the distillation of my thoughts.

Marriage is fundamentally teamwork. Two individuals embark on a lifelong project together, and they deal with a multitude of challenges as they go along, with specific tasks and deliverables expected at various life stages. Building meaningful careers, balancing life and work, raising children, buying a home, investing for retirement, dealing with the pressures of extended family, dealing with unexpected events like illnesses, job stress, financial hardship, etc., are part of the never-ending sequence of life events that a couple must confront and overcome together.

It is unrealistic to expect that each of the individuals in a marriage is a perfectly balanced individual with all the strengths required to deal with life's vicissitudes. The most pragmatic solution is therefore for the couple to have complementary strengths, so that between the two of them, they have the ability to deal with a greater proportion of challenges than either of them could alone.

However, complementary strengths come with their own inherent problem, and this is the tension I referred to earlier. Strengths are related to thinking styles, and complementary strengths are likely to be related to thinking styles in opposite quadrants. As we know, communication is difficult between people with different thinking styles, because they see situations very differently, and find it hard to understand or convince the other of their respective points of view.

It may seem ideal for a couple to have identical thinking styles. They can then understand each other most naturally, and the possibility of conflict between them may seem low. But two people who think alike are likely to share the same blind spots. Over the long haul, as they face a multitude of different life challenges, it is possible that they may make some costly mistakes because in their case, two heads are no better than one. Mistakes and failures can then introduce a different set of stresses into the marriage.

It may seem depressing to conclude that there is no ideal marriage, after all. A couple needs to have complementary strengths to be able to negotiate the gamut of life's challenges successfully over the long haul, yet complementary strengths imply different thinking styles, which make communication a challenge.

It needn't be depressing at all, though! The flip side of the coin is that a couple with mutual respect and trust, who put in the effort to understand each other's thinking styles, and who consciously learn to communicate in a way that the other can understand, can get the best of both worlds. They can function effectively as a team, and kick goal after goal.

[If you liked this post, check out a related one - "An Absurd Question, A Cop-Out Answer - Review Of Movie "What's Love Got To Do With It?""

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Movie Review - Three Thousand Years Of Longing

[No spoilers, don't worry.]

I saw this movie earlier this evening at the cinemas, and thought it was interesting enough to write about.

This won't be my usual style of review. That's because I see this movie as being composed of two layers - an original plot premise, and a certain style of execution.

I'll first extract that plot premise as I understand it, and lay it out for you in distilled form.

Then I'll try to tease out the various core themes and lines of tension that the plot presents, which may then suggest various creative means to resolve them.

Finally, I'll evaluate how well the movie actually delivered on this plot premise, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of cinematography.

Plot premise

The protagonist is a modern-day single woman, a middle-aged professional who has seen a few ups and downs in her life and reached a stage of philosophical equanimity. The story begins when she comes across an interesting-looking bottle in a Middle Eastern bazaar during one of her travels, and buys it. Back in her hotel room, she opens the bottle and out comes a genie who grants her three wishes.

The interesting twist here is that the woman is genuinely contented and does not wish for anything, which surprises the genie.

Besides, she has heard too many stories (and jokes) about this wish-granting business ending badly, to risk falling into the same trap.

The genie needs her to make three wishes, otherwise he will never be free. He understands that the stories she has heard have made her suspicious of genies as tricksters. He then tells her his own life story, about the three times he ended up being imprisoned in the bottle.

The woman then does something.

That's the plot premise. The job of the storywriter is to flesh this out into a captivating story.

Core themes and lines of tension

1. The inner tension between contentment and making a wish - what happens? Does one triumph over the other, or is there another creative way to resolve this conflict?

2. The suspicion that genies are tricky characters not to be trusted - is this suspicion justified? The story could take either tack and run with it.

3. What stories would the genie tell the woman? Ostensibly, they are just a narrative of whatever happened to him, but their ulterior purpose is to overcome her reluctance to make three wishes. So what would the stories be? Would they be true stories, lies, or half-truths? Put together, what course of action would they compel her to take?

4. How would the movie's finale resolve all of these tensions satisfactorily? The genie's selfish motives, the unresolved question of the genie's own trustworthiness, the woman's suspicion of making wishes, her genuine contentment and absence of desire, and the suggested cumulative moral of the genie's three stories - how would they all play out?


To put it bluntly, the movie disappointed me, because I have grown to expect far more intelligent and creative storytelling approaches in modern films. Any number of talented storywriters could have picked up this plot premise and run with it in different brilliant directions.

First, the genie's own stories, while mildly interesting, did not seem to provide any significant lessons. Neither did they provide plot elements that played out in the present day with the protagonist.

Second, the events in the present day, while touching upon elements of modernity, science and technology, did not leverage them in any meaningful way. An early scene shows a speaker on a stage talking about storytelling and narrative, and suggests that advances in modern science and our understanding of the world have dispelled many of the mysteries that in earlier days were attributed to metaphysical phenomena. This is an extremely intriguing idea that makes us wonder how the genie phenomenon would be explained in scientific terms in today's world, but this is dealt with in a very superficial and unconvincing way. Hand-waving about electromagnetism and organic matter isn't enough for an audience used to sophisticated science-fiction.

Third, the protagonist's core character was not leveraged effectively enough. There should have been a dramatic development that both resolved a moral dilemma and heightened the audience's appreciation of her character. If there was one, it was rather weak.

Fourth, there was no satisfying denouement that closed the narrative loop, no "Chekhov's gun" earlier in the plot, for example, that popped up again at the climax to play a pivotal role.

In short, the storytelling was disappointing.

The cinematography was vivid and colourful, providing a swift panorama of Middle Eastern "history" over three thousand years to the present day. This part was well done. (If I had to make a wish, it would be never to be born into a palace. The stress induced by all the intrigues would get to me long before any assassins could.)

Final score: 3 stars out of 5. That's for the original plot premise and the cinematography. Better creativity in fleshing out the plot would have earned it a 4 or a 4.5.