Nothing Profound   drive-by writing by bkkRon

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Thaksin's Tax Sin Toxin Torpedoed

I've held my tongue...oh, how I've held my tongue.

Actually, I've held my typing fingers, but I've been vocal to a few friends on Bad Boy Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's holding onto power over the last two months of growing demonstrations against him. But now, it's time to add to the comments that pepper the inter web.

I'll say this for him: he's a smart motherf$*&#@! With his stepping down as PM on April 4 after an audience with the respected King of Thailand, he remains an elected member of parliament who can now let things cool down, and then stick around long enough to wield power yet again. Mark my words!

Start with this New York Times article to understand the recent basics, if you're not up to speed.

The Nation and the Bangkok Post are two English-language dailies published in Thailand. Both are highly influenced and censored by Thaksin and his government, but can sometimes produce biting commentary. Many media associations in Thailand regularly complain of subtle censorship to outright harassment. The 'comments' link above is to the Nation's web board.

"Thais are corrupt." There's a refrain you hear daily. Bullshit. Their society is no more corrupt than any other. It's no longer an excuse for all (bad) things that occur there. (Whether they are lazy is still open for debate.) Their government is far less corrupt than those of their neighbours in the region, and no match for the geniuses in the White House. (Why do you think Thaksin venerates the Americans?) Where the Thais have differed compared to the more developed nations of the west is in their level of sophistication. Although a country of high literacy and no hunger, Thailand is still a majority of elementary-school-educated farmers. Thaksin knows this well and talks to the masses in a condescending tone not considered insulting in this class-based culture. His blatant buying of votes has won him two elections.

However, the fast-growing Bangkok middle class is catching up to the billionaire tycoon in education, savvy, and knowledge of the parliamentary and business systems that Thaksin had taken over with his abrasive style of know-it-all governing. When I first heard of the large protests planned for the streets of Bangkok a few weeks ago, I expected fatalities resulting from government-led, military oppression. To my delight, the anti-Thaksin demonstrations were well-organized, safe, peaceful and ulitmately effective at ousting a leader revered like no other just two years ago. Who knew that democracy worked? And in Thailand! 'Cause it doesn't in Canada. Up to half a million people at a time joined these street rallies with policemen and soldiers helping keep the peace and even handing out water and helping those overcome by heat. This showed a new civility in Thailand, one that pleasantly surprised the participants in Bangkok, as well as many observers around the world.

There's been enough said and documented about Thaksin's corrupt, CEO-style political leadership. Most of this is not believed by the innocent poor in Thailand. As Thaksin reminded the media over and over in his "I'm stepping down" speech, 16 million Thais voted for him. That's more than half the electorate, and his party, Thai Rak Thai, won the election. Change in policies is not coming. Again, for the lower-class, this is perceived as a good thing.

Ten million people marked the abstention box or "no vote" on the ballot. For those who successfully ousted him, made up largely of academics and business leaders not previously benefitting from Thaksin's cronyism, their fight may not yet be over. Who will replace him is not yet firm. The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was led by Manager Group owner Sondhi Limthongkul (founder of Manager Magazine—some articles in English). He's not interested in a political career, and would have a hard time garnering votes if he did due to his controversial, anti-Thaksin remarks over the last few months. He has just been sued by Thaksin yet again for slander.

If either Commerce Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, an obscure former academic and marketing expert who lacks popular resonance in the rural countryside, or Bhokin Polakul, a constitutional lawyer and former House Speaker gain the party leadership, now that Thaksin has unofficially stepped down, detractors claim it will still be Thaksin who is pulling the strings. Read Shawn W Crispin's Asia Times Online article on what has happened since Thaksin's fall from grace, and what might happen in the coming weeks, months and years.

Probably, if Thaksin chooses, he will remain closely connected to politicos even if he goes back to being what he's really good at: a corrupt, rich, businessman. For now, he's running away to London, England to accompany his daughter who is returning to school. And he won't be back in Thailand until after Songkran, the Thai New Year, which is celebrated April 13 to 15.

This evasive move continues to annoy the PAD. It seems only his unequivocal retiring from politics will appease the growing movement against him.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

US Immigration: A Simple Solution

American politicians over complicate everything. They think they analyze, but they don't; they convolute and muddle.

Eleven million illegal immigrants are in the U.S. now. If they know the number, they should be able at least to agree on how to begin to solve the problem.

Here's the simple solution to the current (this is new?!) immigration problem:
  1. Set up a toll-free 800 number and man it with 1,000 employees. (I believe there are about eleven million people who would be highly qualified for this bi-lingual position.)
  2. Tell the media that all illegal immigrants have six months to call this number and answer all questions.
  3. The questions are:
    • What's your name and date of birth?
    • What are your spouse's and children's names and birthdays?
    • What is your address?
    • Who is your employer and what is your work address?
    • What's your supervisor's name?
  4. Within a month of an immigrant's call, have an agent visit the address provided to verify all info, and to photograph and fingerprint everyone.
  5. Have the agent drop off forms that have to be completed for each member of the family detailing their personal and business histories, with references. Have clear penalties imposed for anyone who is late in mailing in these forms.
  6. Perform a full background check on all immigrants once the forms are received.
  7. Impose/collect fines and fees.
  8. Process the new immigrants within the U.S.; i.e. do not require them to leave and re-enter.
  9. Issue Green Cards first and allow the immigrants to apply for citizenship in three years.
That's it! Simple. Yes, it's amnesty. Get over it! We're not talking about three thousand people. There are eleven million. Amnesty is required. The U.S. has already used amnesty programs to collect illegal weapons. All of those weapons were illegal and potentially harmful. Only a small percentage of the illegal immigrants are criminals or potentially harmful; the vast majority are decent citizens wanting a decent life and legal existence.

If the above process were begun, the dangerous illegals would quickly be weeded out. Employers would be involved since company and supervisors' names would be provided. A company that already employs illegal workers will have to assist in discovering those who don't come forward to register or face legal repercussions.

This is a needed step in legalizing so many who are now under the radar. The tax benefits alone would almost pay for the implementation of the process.

And if the paranoids still want to, let them construct the wall. They'll feel good that they get to build their homage to cold war separatism. They'll feel that they're "doing something." Fine. At least the country can move forward welcoming the new citizens who will help shape the future.

Traffic Court: How To Win Your Case

If, or OK, when, you get a traffic ticket, ALWAYS take your case to court. If you're a hard-working person and you think you can't afford the few hours away from your job to go to court, imagine the extra cost if your insurance premiums go up by $200 per year.

If you're rich and earn the $120 for the amount of the ticket in a few seconds, it's still worth the time and effort to fight the case because a conviction stays on your driving record for three years, and your insurance record for seven years.

On your ticket, check the box to plead not guilty and/or request a trial date. If it doesn't give the option to do this by mail, visit your local court office (details on the ticket) to make the request in writing. This step takes only five minutes (plus travel time, plus standing-in-line time). Then wait for your court date to arrive in the mail. You'll receive the notice in about six months for a court date set at another four to six months later.

You might think your next step is going to court. Wrong. It's preparing. If you've been to court before, it's preparing your case. If you've never been to court, it's preparing yourself first.

Preparing yourself for court
  1. Learn about the players: The Crown Attorney, the Justice of the Peace, the police officer, the clerks, court reporters, bailiffs, etc.
  2. Learn court procedure. (You can visit and sit in on traffic court whenever it is in session.) If you know when to speak, when to ask questions (direct and cross-examination) and how to address the court, you'll be better prepared than 90% of defendants. The court will respect you if you show respect for it.
Steps to preparing your case
  1. Write down the events of everything you remember when you received the ticket.
  2. Prepare your testimony; you will get to tell the whole story in your own words.
  3. Gather and organize your witness(es).
  4. Prepare questions for your witness(es). Prepare your witness(es) by practicing.
  5. Anticipate the Crown's (prosecutor's) questions for your witness(es). Practice.
  6. Research the police officer who made the charge.
  7. Prepare cross-examining questions for the police officer.
  8. Prepare a closing statement and request for time to pay if found guilty.
  9. Prepare your clothing; dress in conservative, respectable business attire. Make sure every witness also dresses well.
The above planning and preparation will take time. But the education you'll give yourself will benefit you during your trial and better your understanding of the legal system. The whole process is actually quite entertaining. By showing you know what to do and when to do it in court, the Crown and JP will respect you and think of you more favourably than defendants who cause slowdowns in their procedures.

While in court during one of your visits well before your case, pay attention to how annoying it is when defendants don't come prepared, don't know what to ask the police officer when given the chance to do so, and generally have no idea what to do in court. Crown Attorneys and Justices of the Peace have to deal with people like this everyday. They become very irritated and the JPs tend to find most defendants guilty.

Simply by preparing, you'll give yourself a huge advantage, and you'll be surprised how respectfully you'll get treated by everyone in court when they see you know the proper procedure and that you're ready for each step in the process.

As well, even if you're found guilty, by stating your case clearly and asking proper questions of your and the Crown's witnesses, you'll have a better chance if you wanted subsequently to take your case to appeals court. The transcript of your traffic court case is required in an appeal and if you don't fully state your case here and now, you won't be able to introduce new evidence during an appeal.

You'll notice that I didn't mention anything about whether or not you were actually guilty of the charge against you. Not important. The goal is to try to get a not guilty verdict. If you don't go to court and plead not guilty, there is no chance you'll be found innocent. If you simply pay the ticket when you receive it, you'll of course be found guilty. All the dangers of the guilty verdict will be on your record for the next seven years. You'll get the demerit points on your driver's licence and have them for the next three years.

By going to court prepared and respectful, you'll leave respected. There's a chance you'll be found not guilty. But most of all, you will have learned something. And that's always good and worth the effort expended.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Joys of Aging

We're all aging. I'm aging, but this is not about me. You want personal? That's what blogs are supposed to be, right? Well then, here's my first personal blog post. I'm writing it now, but it's an entirely separate issue whether I will press the Publish button later.

Whose aging am I referring to if not mine? My grandmother's. Here's a woman who, at 87, resonates so much sorrow that it is in stark contrast to the reveling joy she experienced and shared in her younger days. When I was a child, no one laughed more or harder than she. Except me, when with her, but only when I had milk or Coke in my mouth, which then, you guessed it, took a wrong turn and ended up on the floor by way of my nose. Which caused her to laugh.

My grandfather died 10 years ago. He was truly a great man. My grandmother's been lonely these past 10 years, and her declining health (more rapid of late) has caused her grief to no end. Always a social person—much more so than any of her descendants—she would walk to the nearby grocery store and shopping plaza until her legs no longer permitted the ten-minute trek. With my grandfather, she'd visit friends, family, go to farmer's markets, to shops that she liked across town, to parks, fishing, and around the region for pleasure more than anyone else in our family.

She never learned to drive (was always afraid) and relied on her husband to get around, and now relies on her daughters (2) and grandchildren (4). None of these six people, of whom I am one, I'm ashamed to say, spend a decent amount of time with her. Her confinement to her house, where she lives alone, isolates her from human contact, but provides a needed familiar and comfortable environment. However, she has recently complained to me that she has no one to talk to and can sometimes go days without hearing someone's voice. In the evenings, she says she sometimes phones friends just to chat with someone. Anyone.

I've now made a concerted effort to spend more time with her and to speak with her on the phone almost every day, even if just to say hi. I'm comfortable with her like with no other senior member of my family. Although she complains more now about her aches and pains, I'm not ridden with guilt listening to her; I merely accept that she's complaining and offer some sympathetic niceties in return. These days, she's also wrought with worry over her future. She knows she can no longer live alone, she can't and doesn't want to cook for herself everyday, and even getting around her house with its four levels can be dangerous. She's had many falls in recent years, a few requiring hospitalization.

She recently asked my wife and me whether she could move in with us. My grandmother hasn't been to our new condo but knows it's small. In fact it's a downtown bachelor apartment, meaning it has just one room for its living area. For my wife and me this is fine. We've lived in several one-room, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments all over the world. We purchased our current place because it was a good deal, it got us a desired location quickly, and we plan to rent it out whenever we move to a new, more permanent residence.

So, in fact, Grandma couldn't possibly live with us at our present abode. No space. I've told her that we would consider having her live with us if we bought a two-bedroom condo downtown, that would move her 20 km east of the suburb where she's lived for the past 25 years, further from her daughter (my mother) who is now just 3 km away. In this case, she'd have to sell her house and actually contribute substantially for the down-payment of the new condo because we don't have available cash for such an expensive purchase. And my slave-labour contracting to Canada's richest bank couldn't support a much larger monthly (mortgage/tax/maintenance) payment than what I'm currently paying.

Talk about a motivating situation. I need money fast, and regular amounts of it to sustain a comfortable, large condo by the lake to make the last years of my grandmother's life pleasant. The unknown situation now is what's causing her worry, so my wife and I have tried to alleviate some of that by actively looking for a place in areas that we would like and would be good for her. We've been keeping her up-to-date with the search so she knows we're trying to move forward. It's the limbo that she's in, and the fact that she still lives alone and has to take care of herself, that is weighing on her these days.

Herein lies one major problem. When she first brought up the subject of living with us, she said she'd sell her house and help us buy a bigger place. In theory, this is fine and dandy. In practice, it got me thinking of the familial attacks that might come my way if I were to accept a big chunk of money from my grandmother. This is money (that is mostly in her biggest asset: her house), which is clearly and specifically willed to her daughters and grandchildren. By selling her house and putting a large down payment on a condo for the three of us, she would be giving a large portion of her inheritance to us, and thus depriving others of the larger shares which would have existed without this sale and purchase.

I've had this conversation with her stating such a transaction might piss a lot of people off. Or, OK, two people. Or possibly six people. Grandma then said it's her money/house to do with as she pleases. This, of course, is true. But it might not lessen those attacks I mentioned above. So I've spoken frankly and advised that I would not accept any money unless the whole family understood the situation and accepted it. She's being stubborn saying that it's her choice and hers alone and that she doesn't need anyone's approval.

More major problems are hence afoot. I've yet to announce that I and my wife would gladly live with my grandmother to my mother (her daughter and attorney-in-fact, having been granted power of attorney). I've mentioned that the subject has come up and that my grandmother has requested the new living arrangement. But I haven't said that I've agreed, in principle.

Also, I can imagine my extended family (mother, brother, aunt, cousins) reading this and having a localized (in this case intracerebral), pathological, blood-filled dilatation of a blood vessel caused by a disease or weakening of the vessel's wall. Or, a brain aneurysm. Frankly, if I were reading this same post were it written by my brother or a cousin, I might very well react the same way. Initially. Does it not seem I'm suddenly interested in Grandma's money?

Certainly to the objective reader with no connection to or personal knowledge of me, my agreeing to have my grandmother live with me if she would help pay for a new, larger condominium in which she, I and my wife could live together, would seem obviously financially motivated. Most would say greed is the key factor for my decision. To be clear, I've said to my wife that if the purchase and situation were to materialize, I would not want our new residence to be a temporary one which we'd have to give up when my grandmother passes away or becomes incapacitated and has to move to a nursing home. Before my grandmother's request, which was made less than two months ago, my wife and I had been looking for a new condo on the waterfront. Over the past year, we've seen about a hundred properties in the area and have now narrowed our search to a few buildings we like. We were watching these buildings for units available for sale and our plan was to move into a one-bedroom condo.

To my grandmother, I've been equally clear. She knows that I couldn't afford a large, 2-bedroom unit on my own, and frankly that I wouldn't even desire one at this time were it just for my wife and me. That is not to say that I wouldn't like a larger place to live so if I did accept her offer/investment, I would not want to have to move again should Grandma leave us. This is where, while I'm being honest and clear, others probably feel I'm being greedy and self-serving.

So, what to do? If I accept my grandmother's suggestion and money and we find a place to move into, we'll have a nice, comfortable place to stay and Grandma could live a peaceful, unencumbered life. (This assumes the three of us can get along, which I've purposely left out of this post. I, my wife and my grandmother have already discussed certain dos, don'ts, cans and can'ts to which we would all agree before taking the plunge. We seem to communicate well, but recognize that until we do it, we won't know if the arrangement is feasible. My wife and I are discussing staying at my grandmother's house overnight or for a few days sometimes to see how things go. This would be good practice.) And, if we take some of her money from the sale of her house and put it toward the new condo, we might aggravate the rest of the family who feel we're taking advantage of an old lady (and who are jealous that we'll be getting a large portion of their expected inheritance).

If we don't accept Grandma's offer, she will likely move into a nursing home within the year. She'd have to sell her house and make monthly payments to the home from her lump sum cash as her pension would not likely cover the full cost. She actually doesn't like this in principle because of the large amount of money that would leave the family. She'd much sooner will it to all of us (as is now the case), or give part of it to my wife and me for the purchase of a new condo where she could live as well. My grandmother also does not like the idea of living with strangers, eating strange food, and living by their rules. She has senior friends who have done it and hated it, some of whom have left a retirement home to move back in with family.

One important thing to note is the following: I and my wife don't have children and don't plan to. My brother and his wife have three daughters whom we love. We will, in all likelihood, leave most of our accumulated assets to the three children so anything from my grandmother destined for them will get to them. This, however, favours my mother's side of the family instead of her sister's, my grandmother's other daughter. That side of the family would lose out if Grandma were to give us a portion of the money generated from the sale of her house to buy a condo.

Oh, the drama. Should I promise to pay back the amount I receive for the condo to the rest of the family when Grandma is no longer with us? If so, I and my wife might have to move because we may not have enough cash on hand to do so without selling the condo purchased for the purpose of living with my grandmother. Being forced to sell after having found and moved into a nice place is not something I would like to have to do. Should I listen to my grandmother and simply accept the money as a gift since I and my wife are the ones who will live with and take care of her during her final years? This is what my grandmother says we should do since she states it's her decision what to do with her assets. Of course, she won't be around for any in-fighting that might come afterwards, so she doesn't care.

Last week, when I asked my grandmother what she wanted to do, she answered, "I just want to die." This didn't shock me as it might shock you reading this now. She said this after an exasperating discussion with me and my wife about what she "should" do. She's been asking everyone this question recently. What should she do? The answer, of course, to alleviate her mental suffering in this time of transition, is to do whatever she wants.

So I replied to her comment, "That's going to happen anyway. You know you'll get that. But what do you want to do in the meantime?" This was said with sarcasm and my grandmother snorted a small laugh—a far cry from my childhood days when we'd laugh until it hurt. I think until she settles her present living dilemma she won't be able to laugh without distraction.

For now, I'm actively searching for a two-bedroom condominium within the buildings that interest us. My wife and I realize we can't change the current situation until such a unit becomes available. If one does, we'll let my grandmother know right away and move forward from there. We plan to bring her to see any relevant unit so that she'd be involved in the final decision. Without any trouble, we'd be able quickly to access money in the form of a mortgage on 50% of the value of her house, so we wouldn't have to sell it before being able to put a down-payment on a condo. The units in the buildings we are interested in sell fairly quickly, so we'll have to move fast.

For extra cash, we're willing to sell our current condo (instead of keep it and rent it out), renovate her house to modernize it and maximize its value before selling it (we've been watching Flip This House and Flip That House regularly), and begin the search for worthwhile employment and investment opportunities that would increase our income. With no kids, my wife and I have had to live only for ourselves; now, some external responsibilities might actually kick my ass into gear and change everything for the better.

Hmm. Well, I've re-read the above. I'm sure I'm not the first to have such a decision to make or such a responsibility to contemplate. And if you've read this far, you'll know I decided to press "Publish." Thanks for your attention.