I am quite familiar with the university system. In addition to my journalistic work, I have also lectured at Singapore’s Republic and Ngee Ann Polytechnics. Though polytechnics, these academic institutions are in reality, multi-faceted academic schools where, in addition to technical sciences, biology, law, library sciences and other disciplines are offered,” added Nisar.
You came to this country in October 2010, right after the April events. Did you wish you were not a witness to these incidents?
“I almost always find myself working outside of my country. I studied and worked for several years in Australia and Switzerland. I also visited less developed countries such as India, Pakistan, Vietnam and East Africa. There, I worked as a lecturer, journalist, developed websites for various organizations including municipal bodies, and travelled to some of the remotest parts of the world. Therefore, situations of instability tend not to particularly shock me. I have spent a fair bit of time in developing countries, and I never really faced any problems. I never traveled to a conflict zone but there is one thing I can say for sure: once you find yourself in an area of emergency, you quickly understand that the information reported by the media, frequently tends to be exaggerated. Once you travel to the ground, you can actually start seeing that a lot of things are sometimes overdramatized on television.”
“I have also traveled extensively around the world and know that news information as reported by the media is often not the reality,” adds Nisar’s wife, Malathi. “As a rule, most issues are reported in a negative light. Frankly speaking, with respect to Kyrgyzstan, I too fell for the media coverage initially. I was somewhat apprehensive about traveling here, but that never affected our final decision.”
DIFFERENT BUT FRIENDLY
“We were pleasantly surprised by the broad outlook the Kyrgyz people have,” say the Keshvanis. “They are quite open to new ideas, are very active and strive for success. In addition, the infrastructure here is much better than in other countries.”
“Oh yes, don’t be surprised. For instance, Malaysia, which is across the border is a very successful state. But if you travel deep into its countryside, you encounter serene rural areas with such diverse cultures as well. Regarding the cleanliness, it’s much cleaner in Kyrgyzstan than in, say, India or Pakistan.”
You travelled through the region a fair bit. In what way, in your opinion, are residents of Central Asia different?
“I wouldn’t stress the differences,” says Malathi. “There are so many more similarities, especially between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Tajikistan, certainly, is a somewhat different culture, and it’s evident. It also impacts behavior: in Tajikistan people are far more reserved, but only at the beginning. Then they tend to open up quickly.”
“We are from Southeast Asia and perfectly know that there are differences among the peoples populating the same region, sometimes drastic ones,” continues Nisar. “For example, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam are all countries of the same region, yet, none of them is similar to the other. Therefore, we, as they say, place such differences on various shelves in our memory. For example, in Tajikistan, we worked mostly with the Pamiri people. And Pamiri and Tajik people are, as everybody knows, two distinct peoples.”
“Yet, Malathi is right in the sense that Central Asian states and people do share a lot in common. It is great when irrespective of where one comes from, he/she honours his/her ancestors’ traditions and respectfully treats his/her parents and the elderly as a whole. Residents of all countries of this region have a commendable trait – preserving their people’s culture and customs. There does not seem to be any kind of competition among them, but it’s normal. The intra-regional rivalry is a thing we know very well. For instance, Singaporeans are in an eternal contest with Malaysians. But we never cease to remain friendly nations because of that,” smiles Nisar.
AN ASIAN TIGER’S SUCCESS
Singapore is known as one of the Asian Tigers thanks to its rapid economic growth to the status of a developed nation. In the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index, the Singaporean economy has been consistently holding leading positions. It just seems to be a brilliant case of a classic success story.
What’s the secret?
“Indeed, the Singaporean success was sudden since the country really has very scarce natural resources,” says Nisar. “When Singapore gained independence, it was a small poor country that even had to import fresh water and construction sand, let alone fuel and food. The population was uneducated; the country drastically needed qualified professionals and skilled labour. The country’s only assets included its strategic location – at the intersection of international trade routes. However, the same advantage was enjoyed by former British colonies like Yemen and Sri Lanka; yet, these countries failed to develop as quickly as Singapore and didn’t flourish as well.”
“The Singapore phenomenon is an effective operating government capable of managing socioeconomic transformations, developing sound infrastructure, political stability, fair judiciary systems and conditions for business growth as a core strategy. Other key factors include its political stability that ensures that the power has been held by a single political party for the past 30 years. This factor is important because it ensures stability and predictability and makes the country more attractive to foreign investors.”
“In order to develop and modernize, Singapore was the first to apply several innovative approaches. Firstly, it developed its human resources through education and training in lucrative industries. Secondly, since the domestic market was so small, Singapore started orienting towards foreign and global markets. And because the country’s companies were not ready to operate in the world market, Singapore became the first state to cooperate with transnational corporations to establish companies in the country focused on producing export-intended goods. Moreover, these large transnational corporations passed on its technological expertise to Singapore, brought in contemporary management, trained personnel, created jobs and, last but not the least, created a market chain to distribute the exports-intended manufactured goods.”
“While occupying such a small territory, this island city-state fervently tracks any sign of emerging unfavorable conditions. The entire nation is fixated on prudence, in case of any unforeseen emergencies, and the country consistently demonstrates one of the highest savings shares in the world. Therefore, Singapore in advance prepared to counter any catastrophe in the real estate market so as to prevent a possible current balance deficit.”
It seems strange that you decided to leave your prosperous country to settle here. What attracted you to Kyrgyzstan?
“Actually, my whole family is spread throughout the world,” says Nisar. “My father’s relatives live in Malaysia, Canada, and Europe. My sisters live in England and New Zealand. Many people ask me why I chose Kyrgyzstan. For many of my relatives, this was unexpected. Many of them couldn’t even pronounce “Kyrgyzstan”, let alone find it on the map. When Malathi and I first met, I told her that I wanted to work in Central Asia. Since it is a developing region, there is plenty of opportunity and I felt I wanted to personally contribute to the region. When I was recently reviewing my professional portfolio, I recalled a media interview ten years ago, where I had explicitly expressed my desire to come to Central Asia.”
“My work at UCA is exactly to get more researchers and scholars to discover the region. It is a unique university because it unites three countries – Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. In addition, my job is to establish contacts with other universities.”
“Prior to traveling to Kyrgyzstan, I never left home for this long. I probably left for four months at most,” says Malathi. “My mother misses me of course, but she knows I am here with my husband and safe. From a young age, I was always interested in discovering new countries. My primary interest is in customer service and tourism. From the perspective of tourism development, Kyrgyzstan is an interesting place for me.”
FLY BUT MAKE SURE YOU ARRIVE
Tourism is considered to be a lucrative and strategic industry; however, all government strategies and campaigns aimed at attracting tourists failed to deliver anything significant. What do you think caused this?
“A litmus test here is ensuring communicating with foreigners. For instance, I asked my fellow Singaporeans whether they wanted to visit Kyrgyzstan and what would be the things they would want to see here. One needs to analyze the measures taken by the government to understand why they failed to deliver a tangible result. I can say, though, that there is a perception issue. When people hear Central Asia, the first association in their minds is “instability.” For example, Singapore is a stable and safe country; and for tourists, these two indicators are significant. Nisar and I arrange trips for our friends to visit us. We try to show them the most unique local places so that upon return our friends can tell others and get them to visit this mountainous region.”
“In order to develop tourism one needs to work with other countries and overcome stereotypes. Other obstacles include the lack of direct air traffic to foreign countries. It is much easier to travel by air to Almaty than to Bishkek, although the flying time is almost the same. It would be great if a few direct flights to Kyrgyzstan were opened during the season. I have a lot of experience in the hotel and tourism industries and I was employed by an airline for several years, so I am willing to share my expertise with my Kyrgyz counterparts.”
By the way, Malathi Keshvani joined the American University of Central Asia where she studies psychology. She became interested in this field when she was dealing with estranged clients in a law firm.
“My secondary work experience is in law. When I was employed by a law firm, I dealt with civil and criminal cases. There, I met a very experienced psychologist and it was interesting to observe how she analyzed the case from the forensics perspective. I would like to master this science and plan to continue in this field. In the meantime, I am looking to be an English language and customer service trainer to groom young people here.”
Do you feel at home in Kyrgyzstan?
“Yes, absolutely,” say the Keshvanis. “Firstly, we are here together, and that alone creates a sense of being home. Secondly, both of us are doing what we feel like and what, in our opinion, will bring use to this country. We do face a language barrier, and that offers its challenges. But really, one can solve any problem as long as one knows that the goal justifies the means.”
Photo from Nisar and Malathi Keshvani’s family album