kenny hodgart


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An interview with Philip Morris International CEO Andre Calantzopoulos

This article, titled Asia, nicotine and new fronts in the future of smoking, can be read at Asia Times.

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Laying low in Ho Chi Minh City’s red light district

This article can also be read at Asia Times

I’ve stopped by one of the roadside bars on Bui Vien Street, where Steve, a proud Western Australian, is telling me what makes the girls in this part of Saigon so special. His mate has just nicked his scooter and driven off home on it, leaving Steve bereft of company. The girls, though. See, the thing is, they do everything, he says. Everything: they even kiss you.

Steve is feeling a bit emotional, as it happens. He has had to leave his girlfriend – on account of his wife, who is back home in Perth, not liking her. They would have split anyway, he confides, ruefully casting his cigarette end in the direction of a passing tide of bedraggled American youths. She was getting on a bit and he refused to give her what she wanted: a child.

Steve looks about 68, at a conservative estimate. It is with boyish delight, however, that he shows me the Zippo lighter gifted him by a stranger earlier in the day. “Exceptionally rare,” he remarks, allowing me to feel its weight. “Made in 1958.” I nudge the cap off, thumb the wheel and a flame licks the air between us. Steve looks positively touched. I drink my beer.

I hadn’t planned on hanging my hat in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, which my belated inquiries (Google search) reveal to be “notorious.” Motivated vaguely by nostalgia (for what, I’m not quite sure; when I was of backpacking age I stayed home like most people with no money), I’d simply wanted to slum it a bit after staying in a posh place in Hoi An at someone else’s expense the night before. Easier said than done.

I thought I knew what I was looking for on hotels.com – no rat-holes, nothing dirt-cheap, just somewhere spartan but characterful, with a touch of woodiness and that air of respectability that used to attach itself to all guesthouses in the lower arrondissements of Paris (an air that almost certainly concealed some far less decorous unknown). It seems you have to really lower the price bar for that kind of thing in modern-day Saigon, though: luxury accommodation starts at about US$40 a night. Spend a fraction more and you’re into Kubla Khan territory.

The room I have settled for, at US$15, is immaculate. Everything in it is brand new and of the sternest good quality. Cavernous ensuite bathroom included, it is about the size of my apartment in Hong Kong.

At check-in, I’d chatted to the owners’ daughter, an elfish, handsome girl of about 21. What sort of things would I be doing while in Ho Chi Minh City, she had asked me. As I was flying out the following evening and hadn’t done any research I supposed I would probably just wander around, I’d said, adding – a propos of her dubious silence – that my editor had instructed me to go and look at the War Remnants Museum.

Showing me how to get there on the map, she’d explained that the museum is a bit boring and that people of her generation never talk amongst themselves about the war, nor indeed of its remnants. Do older people never get upset about this lack of interest? Oh no, she’d insisted: they’re just delighted that Vietnam has so many young people – post-war baby-boomers – to do everything for them.

Where I come from, in Britain, I’d said, it’s the opposite; in fact, there are so many old British people that, to keep ourselves amused, we give them unlimited free bus travel then place bets on how many days it will take them to get home. Her look of reproach seemed laden with the suggestion that one must be more respectful of one’s elders, whatever their provenance.


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#HangAyazNizami is what comes of caving in to clerical rule

This article can also be read at Asia Times

What do you suppose is the correct response to angry religious people seeking to avenge injury visited on them by words (and sometimes cartoons)?

The Christian faith has its injunction to non-violence: “Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Jesus’ advice is variously interpreted as a call for meek submission or provocative defiance – which means that, like a great deal of what is found in religious texts, it can be used to support any number of courses of action, or non-action. There’s also the old “eye for an eye” passage, of course.

For its part, the secular West has tended to react to violence occasioned by members of its Muslim minority populations with a distinctly accommodating passivity. No, we will not re-publish drawings that are deemed offensive, even if by doing so we enlighten our readers. Yes, we will tread very carefully in what we say with regard to Islam and its prophet. And yes, we will continue to agree that it is “the religion of peace.” The brandishing of cheeks seems an altogether reckless business.

Last week, Canada passed a motion to criminalize Islamophobia. Critics say it reframes blasphemy as hate speech and enshrines the kind of clerical oversight of public discourse that prevails in the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a pact that has long campaigned against the “defamation of religion” in non-Muslim countries. (Several of those states, incidentally, uphold a mandatory death sentence for blasphemers and apostates.)

What, though, if an erosion of the commitment to free speech in the West actually made life worse for Muslim, or erstwhile Muslim, critics of Islam? That’s certainly the view taken by the activist and commentator Maryam Namazie, who – as an Iranian-born secularist – belongs to a minority within a minority in her adopted UK. In her newsletter for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this week, she wrote that: “The normalization of de jure or de facto blasphemy laws and accusations of Islamophobia when religion is criticized have created a climate where Islamic states feel free to persecute freethinkers with impunity … It’s crucial that we defend blasphemers and apostates unequivocally and ensure that freedom of conscience and expression are upheld for all – believers and nonbelievers alike.”

She was, in fact, referring to the case of Ayaz Nizami, a Pakistani scholar of Islam and blogger who happens to have renounced religion and is now suffering for it: on March 24 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. In a country that is a signatory to all manner of bons mots about human rights and freedom of conscience, but where some 30,000 gathered last year to mourn the murderer of a governor who had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, he also now faces the death penalty.

Nizami’s plight has, ironically enough, been brought to global attention partly on account of a trending Twitter hashtag (#HangAyazNizami) about him. Ironic why? Because the Pakistani government earlier in March requested that Twitter and Facebook assist it in identifying and weeding out those suspected of blasphemy online. Twitter’s rules, meanwhile, state that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others …” Accounts have, in the past, been suspended over remarks considered Islamophobic; as yet, however, no Pakistanis have been banned for tweeting their encouragement to Nizami’s jailers.

The Pakistani government’s entreaties to American social media companies are just one strand of its recent assault on atheism. Since the turn of the year, it has arrested or abducted, and tortured, multiple writers and activists and called for citizens to become informants on the “enemies of Islam.”

It has curtailed freedom of speech and expression offline and on, and – at a time when the country’s elites are worried about Pakistan’s image abroad and reputation as a sponsor of jihad – it has worked itself into a froth against “liberal secular extremism,” branding atheists as terrorists.

In most functioning countries, the right to religion generally comes, as Namazie puts it, with “a corresponding right to be free from religion.” When confronted by it, one is free to turn the other cheek, or worse. Perhaps it’s time we showed those trying to win that freedom in the Muslim world a little more respect. Without more of them, there’s going to be a lot more avenging of injury.


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The messiah friend of President Duterte

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Their Sunday service has just ended and I’m trying to talk to some of the worshippers making their way out of the Southorn Stadium in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Sonny, a middle-aged man who calls himself a Preaching Club Member and wants to know my purpose, seems keen on stopping me. As it happens, he has quite a lot to say for himself – both about the church to which he belongs (‘The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above All Names’), and about the prospects for my own salvation (basically, unless I become a “Kingdom citizen”, they’re not good, I think).

Sonny has known the sect’s leader, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, for many years, he says. Pastor Quiboloy claims to be the ‘Appointed Son of God’ and has amassed considerable wealth and power in the Philippines in recent decades. So what kind of man is he, I ask. “He is just an ordinary guy, but there is something special from within,” Sonny insists. “Many, many people love the pastor. He is the one who encouraged our good president (Rodrigo Duterte) now to stand up and make the Philippines better.”

Earlier, video of a sermon given in Davao City by Pastor Quiboloy (who claims to have dreamt 17 years ago that Duterte, his long-time friend, would one day be president) had been relayed live on two large screens. As he waxed on about how it has pleased God to make him wealthy – when he had nothing in life, he shouldered that burden with equal grace – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women around me seemed more concerned with browsing Facebook on their smartphones.

Admittedly, it’s an entirely different story when the music gets up. At the Kingdom’s Southorn services, a full choir and half an orchestra, perched in front of a giant print of two golden staircases ascending into the clouds, occupy one end of the basketball hall. The congregation, around 1,000-strong and composed largely of Filipina domestic helpers immaculately attired in pristine white dresses, can’t seem to get enough of the hymns – jaunty gospel numbers laden with endless euphoric key changes.

It would be tempting to describe the effect as Stepford-ish. In truth, there is something rather touching about the sense of personal and collective pride on display. And even if it’s hard to fathom the appeal of their curiously un-spellbinding figurehead, there’s no obvious sense of anyone having been actively coerced into attendance. Annabel Arroyo, a woman in her mid-30s from Mindanao who has been attending for four years but only submitted to being baptized last December, tells me: “The church is our community. I came because I had friends who came and they talked to me about it.”

Pastor Quiboloy’s ministry is, nevertheless, by most definitions, a cult. And like most cults, its unsavory facets – more of which at length – do not lurk far beneath the surface.

In Hong Kong, The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is listed, along with a legion of similar-sounding Christian churches, on the Inland Revenue department’s register of Tax-Exempt Charities, although it does not have a permit from the Social Welfare department to collect money in public. Nor indeed do either of two philanthropic concerns – The Children’s Joy Foundation and the Sonshine Philippines Movement – related to the church. Women claiming to collect for these programs are a common sight on the streets of Hong Kong Island’s busiest nightlife districts, but the church denies any knowledge of their activities and when approached by the Asia Times they were evasive about any links to Quiboloy’s sect. Rumors abound that they are “on the make”.

Quiboloy set up The Children’s Joy Foundation, its website states, in 1998, “to help feed, clothe, and send to school” destitute children. Meanwhile, donations to the Sonshine Philippines Movement are directed towards “the complete restoration of man and his environment” – and there are details online of its reforestation programs and rebuilding work in communities devastated by typhoons. What’s clear is that these endeavors are no mere ruse. “The pastor has helped many poor people,” says Rose, a member of the church for 18 years who says Quiboloy put her through school in Davao. “He paid for everything – because he is a very good person.”

Where his benevolence ends and his personal wealth begins is not so apparent. Suffice to say that, having risen from poverty, being the messiah has made Quiboloy a very rich man – besides occupying a large estate in the foothills of Mount Avo, near Davao City, he was able to lend Duterte his private jet and helicopter during the former Davao mayor’s recent, successful bid for national office.

As Quiboloy tells it, God came to his mother in the form of a cloud after he was born, declaring “That’s my son.” He left the United Pentecostal Church to start preaching his own gospel in 1985 and now claims to command the allegiance of four million tithed followers (meaning they give the church a tenth of their income) in the Philippines and two million more overseas, in addition to reaching 600 million viewers worldwide through his TV station.

In a rare interview with a mainstream media outlet, he told ABC News, in 2010, that every member of his Kingdom shares in his wealth and is welcome to stay at his mansion. In explaining, however, that the Almighty had revealed to him in 1983 that he wanted Quiboloy to own a jet, he also made it clear that each of us ought to accept what is apportioned to us. “If it is not God’s will for me to have these things I have, you can take it away,” he told his interviewer. “It is God’s will that we follow… If he wanted me to live like a rat, if he wanted me to live in wealth or in poverty, it does not matter to me. Put me there and I’ll be happy as long as it’s God’s will.

My own attempts to score an interview with Quiboloy were met with friendly suspicion then ultimately rebuffed after I complied with a request to submit a list of questions to his office. I’d wanted to sit in a room with someone who describes his state of spiritual perfection as being similar to that of Adam before the Fall and who has convinced several million self-identifying Christians that he is justified in putting himself on an even footing with Jesus Christ. I’d wanted to ask him about his conversations with God – and about allegations against him of brainwashing and of holding a young woman against her will.

I’d wanted to ask, too, about stories linking him to intimidation and land grabs against indigenous peoples in Mindanao – including an episode that resulted in the death of the Bagobo K’lata tribal leader Dominador Diarog, who was gunned down in 2008 shortly after refusing to sell Quiboloy two hectares of land near the so-called Garden of Eden Restored on the Pastor’s grounds. At the time, Quiboloy was able to call on Duterte – himself widely suspected of overseeing extrajudicial killings during his tenure in Davao – to dismiss rumors of his involvement.

In the end, I have to make do with watching him preach on a big screen. Quiboloy made one of his semi-regular appearances at the Southorn in June, but on my visit his presence was virtual. He’s fatiguing to listen to – by turns straw man-denouncing demagogue, late-era Elvis impersonator and used-car salesman – and I’m unable to discern the “something special from within” that Sonny alludes to. Maybe it’s simply stamina, or conviction. “No other pastors or preachers have the knowledge that he has,” says Rose. “He teaches us to work hard and make money for the Father’s glory and to pay for the ministry and its work.”

As I look around the hall, I get the sense I’m witnessing a show of strength that thrives on vulnerability. Maybe that’s how all religion works. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just too cynical. I can’t help but suspect, however, that the greater cynic is Pastor Quiboloy himself.


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It’s always rush hour in Hong Kong

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

I don’t expect it’s a hugely controversial observation for a foreigner to make that for all their many virtues Hongkongers are possessed of a certain impatience. People here seem to be in a constant hurry: to get out of the lift, to get on the train, to put in more hours at work, to make sure their lunch doesn’t run off its plate. Everything is time lost or gained; results must be instant. There’s a problem? Sack the helper. Send in a tutor. Fire off a dozen instant messages.

The other day, out on my rounds, I took a phone call from an unrecognised number – something I’m usually careful not to do because nine times out of ten when I pick up I’m met with a snatch of music, followed by a couple of rings and then someone saying “wai?” (Which puts me in a distemper, because whoever is on the end of the line made the call, not me). But no – this time it was a member of our much-loved public relations community phoning me about a story. Had I received her email? Possibly… When had it been sent? Just now. Awkward pause. What did it say? Oh, maybe you need to read it and reply to me. Yes, OK. I checked: it asked me if I could acknowledge receipt of an attached document. Dutifully, I did.

Perhaps I do Hong Kong a disservice by imagining things are different elsewhere. Certainly, the proliferation of channels of instantaneous communication, all jammed into your smartphone, means that unless you throw the damn thing away it is harder, wherever you are in the world, to attain serenity. But, really, we’ve arrived at an appalling state of affairs, as a society and a race. Take Whatsapp, for example. It shows when you’re online – so if you’re already having a conversation and someone else starts in with a whole other thread of messages, it’s impossible to duck out without seeming like you’re deliberately ignoring them.

The contention, of course, is that all of this “connectivity” means people are getting on with their lives more efficiently, that they’re doing things quicker and better and with fewer misunderstandings. Rubbish. All it means is that you spend half your waking hours responding to demands for updates and worrying about whether it’s bad form not to reciprocate emoticon usage.

For some people, responding to emails at midnight, or 6am, or two minutes after their out-of-office ping-back has informed you they are on annual leave, shows how hard-working and committed they are. They’re suckers. But it’s also not really their fault: they’ve simply internalised all the angst governments and corporations go about spreading to make us all feel like we’re personally responsible for slackness in the economy. You might spend your days recycling information in the hypomanic mills of the post-industrial knowledge economy. You might labour as a mere pusher of digital pens. But you’re a lazy bastard and anaemic growth is your fault. Got that?

Over the last few decades, time-saving plant and machinery has increased “productivity” in ways that make the sweat of our brows like unto driblets in the ocean. My guess is that we feel a sense of collective redundancy and guilt about this – anxieties which the dismal, and dismally inexact, science of economics can easily be mobilised to bolster. Growth is one thing, productivity another. But productivity growth must also be maintained.

Not all technological innovations are equal, though. And while instantaneous information might be useful in battle, or for nailing criminals, it is not always. Twitter consists entirely of media folk preening themselves and not doing any actual work. Rolling news is increasingly just people talking about what’s in tomorrow’s newspapers, which ruins the fun of buying a newspaper. And real-time market information (at least according to the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Intelligent Investment’ columnist Jason Zweig) is a terrible idea that probably leaves investors worse off over the long run.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my phone is making all kinds of noises and I must go to it – if only to maintain the illusion of productivity.