Saturday, 20 October 2012

Photo Consciousness 3

Now I know why my friends advised me against growing a moustache
Because all good hotels have soft openings

Testing the Speed of the Internet. Results: Slow

Friday, 12 October 2012

Singapore Will Learn a Lesson in Irish Property Bubbles

Reading through the daily newspaper in Singapore is like travelling backwards in time to Ireland in 2005.  The similarities are remarkable. The Irish nation had grown accustomed to its new-found titles of wealth and in Singapore, the outlook is very much the same: growth in the economy has been staggering over the past decade and has been surprisingly resilient against volatile international markets.

The levels of personal wealth of the island nation are amongst the highest in the world and there is a thoughtless optimism in it lasting. However, there are frightening indicators that were blindly ignored in Ireland that could be staring Singapore in the face.

The proud confidence embellished by recent economic growth is easily noticed, especially when you're hearing the locals say "the only way property prices can go is up!" and housing construction catering for non-Singaporean residents has boomed. These conditions are providing the building industry with an open invitation to grow. While Singapore might have its export market to fall back on should the property market fall through, it will be of little solace for the man on the street who'll be saddled with negative equity, for the lifetime of his 50 year mortgage.

The most telling aspect of Singapore's property market is to be found in the national newspaper, the 'Straits Times'. Saturday's edition managed a cool 15 pages of property adverts in a 48 page newspaper. The front page relays comforting tales of prudent government action and international architecture prizes for the recently opened World Building of the Year 'Gardens by the Bay', confirming in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans that they too could live in somewhere architecturally significant. Their pride is nestled closely to the cultural identity, a stinging reminder of Irish developers' Docklands-trophies of glass and concrete.
"Buy a house, WIN a car!"

These shared characteristics are almost painful to an Irish reader. When it was announced that the price of apartments within the state-run social housing scheme had achieved record breaking levels, it should have come with a wink and a nudge; some sort of acknowledgement that there could be something afoot.

House prices will go up for another year or two and on a typically stifling Saturday afternoon, after weeks of intently visiting the show-houses that could be their future home, a young couple will quietly discuss their bidding price out of earshot of the estate agent. In the hall of this 2 bedroom apartment, slightly too far from the city centre, they will struggle to justify the asking price. They will appreciate the large windows and especially the spacious layout in the kitchen (for such small square-footage) and reconsider how close they are to the new subway line.

They will look to each other and know that they are both thinking "No; it's just too much, we can't afford this" and politely make their thank yous and leave. They will tell their friends (the ones who came to the wedding) that they will be renting for another year just to see if the market can even out and they'll see how things are in 12 months, and that will be the end of Singapore's property bubble.

Irish people thought they were special; that they would break from all historical trends in property bubbles and ride through Morgan Kelly's doubts and criticisms with a galloping economy and certificates of "Richest Nation Per Capita" tucked into nouveau riche saddlebags. Singapore has joined the bandwagon, but it is no pioneer.

It is a freshly painted cart on a very well worn road.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Indonesia: Sometimes by Candlelight

An archipelago of 17,000 tropical islands strewn with natural disasters, terrorism and turbulent politics, cemented together with economic growth and a burgeoning population. There are volatile separatist movements in Northern Sumatra as well as in West Papuan and the country is still struggling to address the violent devastation brought about by the Boxing Day tsunamis and the extremists (who remain active) responsible for the Bali bombings. To round off this list of woe, Indonesia is facing an energy crisis as well.

As the Indonesian economy grows, there's been an increase in the amount of people who can afford night-time lighting and some basic consumer electronics. The price of oil has increased worldwide in the past decade and Indonesia's electricity network can't keep up. Blackouts are becoming an increasingly common experience for the ordinary people of Indonesia's towns and cities.

Arriving into the mountain village of Kaliurang on the slopes of Merapi, was a surreal experience: a whole village, in darkness. The only light in the main street came from the solitary glow of a gas stove at a food stall, the hostel I arrived at was lit by candles.

I asked the owner of the hostel how often blackouts like this happened. He said that it was a rare occurrence, maybe twice a year. However, the candles were still left out the afternoon of the next day, which made me doubtful of the veracity of his statement.

The blackout lasted an hour. When light returned I went to the village centre in search of dinner. People I asked about the situation gave the impression that it was a more regular experience than my host was letting on, saying that it was a once a month or every two month occurrence.

In Java's second biggest city, Yogyakarta, I experienced the second blackout of my visit. The lights failed suddenly and there as an audible groan from the internet cafés and hostels. Some of the larger hotels in the city had private generators and light spilled out onto the streets. Car headlights and scooters provided illumination as the crowds made their way back to hotels and losmen. If the hostel owner was telling the truth, I was either incredibly unlucky to experience the two blackouts that occur in a year in the space of a five day visit, or they occur with such frequency that it's preferable to lie about them.

These were blackouts on a small scale, but Indonesia has experienced some of the most widespread in history. In 2008, 100 million people (imagine everyone in England and France sitting in the dark) were left without electricity when coal ships couldn't make delivery due to rough seas. The resulting deficit in supply caused a cascading fault through the power grid. For individuals, it is an inconvenience. For Indonesia's economy, it scares away possible investment. Companies' manufacturing facilities grind to a halt with each blackout. Even with cheap labour and the availability of resources, for some companies, it won't be worth the effort.

These power blackouts, similar to those that occurred recently in India, are the physical manifestations of a global energy crisis. As demand increases in developing nations such as Indonesia, the world's ability to cope will be tested. Wealthier nations have a better capacity to adapt with a price increase for energy, and can do without some luxuries. For those in developing nations where 50% of the world's population lives, it means going without lighting, heating and access to education. It is a global challenge that will shape every aspect of life in the next century.