Friday, 22 March 2013


Suppose the following:

-       a small island
-       a small population ( less than 800,000)
-       with an extensive tax treaty network (to make transfer payments across borders easier)
-       a low corporation tax (currently 10%)
-       stable governmental structure
-       located next to a large region with one of the most populated areas
-       A high standard of living

And that’s how Cyprus became an international banking center.

Surprisingly a large financial player and part of the Eurozone, with a banking sector four or five times as big as you might expect given the size of its economy, its no wonder why this tiny nation is causing so much financial havoc worldwide.

“A sunny place for shady people” is how I’ve felt when people frequently ask me how it is to live there. Basically, Cyprus is a place where people, especially but not only Russians, hide their wealth from both the taxmen and the regulators. Whatever gloss you put on it, it’s basically about money laundering.

With Cypriot banks buying up Greek debt and lending into a real estate bubble, it was a matter of time before things went seriously wrong. And they have.

Without its own currency, dependent on EU decision makers, and the reluctance to accept the end-of its money laundering business. In the typical ‘little man carries the burden while big guy skates’ scenario, Cypriot leaders are trying to limit the losses to their foreign investors in the vain hope they can still resume at the expense of small domestic depositors. With the ordinary Cypriots outraged (and rightfully so) and the plan proposed getting rejected, Cyprus has 72 hours to come up with a plan to raise 5.8 bn euros before the ECB pulls emergency funding.

No one knows what will happen next, but if this has taught us anything its that tax ‘treasure’ islands like Cyprus are still operating in the same way they did before the global financial crisis. How EU leaders continue to make bad political decisions using the excuse of ‘unique’ situations that need ‘unique’ rules. How many ‘unique’ custom crafted solutions will they come up with next before they realize this will inevitably lead to a massive EU bank run and financial downpour? Everyone is crying about budget deficits, yet corporations and the wealthy are still freely using tax havens to avoid paying taxes like the little people.

So don't cry for Cyprus. Cry for the world we live in where time after time our leaders refuse to learn from their mistakes.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Things I've Learnt Living and Working as an Expat in Hong Kong

1.    Hong Kong makes other European cities seem absolutely sterile
Those first days were dizzying.  I was abuzz with the thrill of being in a new country and dove straight in, hard and deep.  I wandered the streets, overwhelmed by the sheer activity: there were people everywhere, buying, selling, eating and drinkingThis is especially true with regard to the markets. There was a traditional street market across from my apartment building, and I went there every chance I could get to get down, to take marvel at the sights, breathe in the smells, and get down with all of that crazy food.

2. You’ll have to figure out most things on your own:

Like most first real jobs, you’re mostly responsible for your own skill development. Your bosses will tell you to begin or complete projects that you have no idea how to do, and they won’t have time to instruct you. You’ll have to figure out which colleagues can point you in the right direction or give you examples, and which colleagues or higher-ups don’t have the time or inclination. You’ll also need a little ingenuity and find ways to figure it out on your own, because sometimes people just won’t want to tell the newbie how to do something. Especially working in a typical Hong Kong Chinese company, a language barrier on top of that does not help the situation much either.

3.    A good command of English is still a highly regarded tool
The Eurozone’s recession and the expansion of the Chinese economy, has made everyone look towards the Far East for business direction and economic prosperity. While this very much true, that doesn't mean that the universal language of English is becoming insignificant. While falling behind in business terms, people with a strong command of written and spoken English and an international background are still a company asset. Speak another European language too? All the better. Chinese companies are seeking to enhance their global profile and reach to Western investors.

4.    Individualism is not a virtue. Loyalty is:
Many of the West’s concepts of “Personal individualism” here is shunned. Being a loner is not a virtue. Loyalty is, and once you show it, you have built connections that are very hard to break. There are companies here that will not fire an employee. If a person doesn’t perform, or an entire team fails, management finds another place for them. In the West, if you don’t perform well enough people usually think it’s an internal problem, that the failing employee simply isn’t trying hard enough. That person’s usually fired.

5.    You’ll be Too Busy to Get Homesick
My To Do Lists almost always start with “Call”: Your sister, your mother, your father etc. I cross those off a lot less than I’d like. A graphic would show spikes of contact around birthdays and holidays and then the line would flatten out. Two-line Facebook messages, likes and comments on the infrequent photo, the pretense of keeping up with people by checking their walls once every few weeks — it’s never enough.

6.    Stop pining:
It’s obviously normal to miss your family, friends, and the familiar but in order to have a good life as an expat you have to commit to it. A lot of people come overseas, living in a cocoon of “gweilodom” – “gweilo” slang meaning ‘white male’ in Cantonese - and do not give themselves all the way, pining for their home country: for its food, its government, its pedestrian customs and they live a kind of half life.. I too am ‘guilty’ in that respect: most of my friends being expats, barely picking up any Cantonese, and I have also frequently complained about Hong Kong’s shortcomings – the thin-on-the-ground arts scene, the pollution, the obsession with money and materialism – without doing much to address those issues myselfIt’s a mental shift, that happens without you really noticing and it's those who stop wishing for home that make their lives work abroad.

7.    Work hard, play hard
This is definitely the epitome of the Asian, let alone Hong Kong work ethic. Well the first part at least. [if you’re local.] 9-5 jobs simply do not exist here. Neither does Overtime Pay. Working consecutively for 18 hours straight? I’ve seen it. Working 7 days consecutively for 15 hours straight? I’ve lived it. Working overtime is as much a given here, just like the fact that the streets will always smell either of jasmine or of dried octopus. Even if you’ve done all your work, you are expected to stay longer to show your boss you’re ‘hardworking’. It seems even the housing here was built this way: Flats might be small comparative to the UK and you certainly pay the price for living on Hong Kong Island, so the reality is that you’re hardly in your flat but to sleep.

8.    You’ll make new friends sooner than you thought
Getting involved with the expat community is comfortable and easy as there are plenty of people to scoop you up and firm friends are quickly made in Hong Kong - they end up being part of your Asian family. Expats know what it’s like to arrive in this vibrant city, which makes for an immediate natural understanding. What is unique about Hong Kong is the international influence: it’s a young city full of fascinating people. Due to its speedy development and entrepreneurial spirit, it attracts an eclectic mix of individuals and that’s what makes it exciting - here, anything and everything seems possible.

9.    Hong Kongers stick to their own
Having said that about Hong Kong’s international influence, that question of sticking to your own is especially pertinent to Hong Kong, where the divide between the local population and the expat population is especially sharp. On the one hand, you may say that it is reasonably global and international... but at the same time, you don’t really see a lot of mixing [between locals and expats] in everyday life. Some will associate foreigners with Lan Kwai Fong, casual sex and alcoholism. Others will say Westerners are stand-offish or arrogant. But you also hear things like friendly, nice, affluent, well-mannered, even interested in Chinese culture or Chinese people.

10.You can be anyone you want to be:

And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.