Grim forebodings as discontent simmers

Dev Nadkarni/ Bangkok Diary

It takes me four hours to fly from Mumbai to Bangkok. Then five hours in a taxi from the Thai capital’s swishy Suvarnabhumi Airport to a hotel in the city – and that’s not even the hotel in which I am booked to stay for the next few days. It is impossible to reach that hotel today or even tomorrow, I gather from the taxi driver’s heavily Thai laced English emphasised by jerky gesticulations, which I seem to understand better than the words and sounds I hear.

We are ploughing our way through a citizens’ protest. Aerial pictures on the front pages of newspapers the next day show masses of people thronging the city centre’s Democracy Monument – the kind of picture of a sea of humanity we see at the funeral of a popular leader in the world’s more populous parts. The police say there are 150,000 people. The opposition says there are a million. Some media reports say half a million. Anyway, there are enough people to make a 40km drive from airport to city last five hours.

The protestors want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Government to step down. They say the Government is actually run by proxy by her brother, controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse it of corruption. The immediate reason for the protests, however, is outrage at a proposed new Amnesty Bill, which was passed by the ruling party on November 1, which the Senate turned down 11 days later.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed constitutional amendment is illegal, which the Government rejected saying the court had no jurisdiction over it. It’s a classic case of the legislative and judicial arms of a democracy clashing. So far the executive has steered clear. But the protestors are about to force its hand, too. They are storming Government offices, cutting off power and water supply to them, blockading public access to administrative services – and as the latest reports say, they are asking the country’s armed forces to pick a side: either pro or anti Government.

When similar protests took place a few years ago, the country went into lockdown for weeks. The airport was blockaded for weeks with international tourists stranded for days, sleeping on the floors of concourses. My taxi inches past swarming crowds. They are all smiling and waving flags and plastic palms. Many are whistling intermittently. Whistling has become a signature of Bangkok protests through these past years.

Motorists and motorcyclists appear to have infinite patience. They wave enthusiastically at the pedestrian protestors, smiling all the while. They don’t seem to mind that they are being delayed in reaching their destinations because of the hordes of protestors. In all these four hours I hear no honking. Not a single honk or toot – just whistling and lots of smiling and waving. My cabbie seems to be full of sympathy for them. It comes as a bit of a surprise when I later read that some 50 people died in violence during the last protests. For now, I can’t imagine how such disarming chumminess between the blockers and the blocked could lead to violence.

I am here to attend the UNESCAP hosted Asia Pacific Business Forum, which was originally supposed to be held in Sydney but was shifted to the organisation’s headquarters in Bangkok. Among the reasons cited for the shift was the raging bushfires in New South Wales I remember reading in one of the emails. Access to the UN offices in Bangkok is blocked. So the venue is changed. Again. It is now in a hotel not far away from mine. But it’s a challenge even to get there.

On the morning of the first day of the meet, my hotel concierge says the new venue is out of bounds for any form of transport. A colleague who has got to the venue texts advising me it’s possible to get there only by motorcycle taxi. ‘Get your hotel to write down the address in Thai. The drivers don’t know English,’ his text says. I call for a motorcycle taxi. But I can’t sit astride the pillion, nursing as I am a painful meniscal tear in my knee and a brace between thigh and calf – and armed with a walking stick to boot! I give up.

But I am able to get to the venue on day 2, though what’s normally a 10 minute cab ride takes me 70. I walk into a presentation about productivity. I wonder how much of productivity this country is losing because of the protests.

I gather a Pacific Islands team has made an impactful presentation on day 1 of the forum, which is about putting the ‘P’ (Pacific) back in APBF. Though the forum is not new, the islands have tended to be glossed over in past years. This year, the islands are purposefully involved with the presence of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s trade arm Pacific Islands Trade & Invest’s Trade Commissioners from Australia, China and New Zealand. Representatives from Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Micronesia are also present and interact with business leaders and Government representatives from ASEAN countries.

Presentations at the meet outline both the opportunities and challenges that the Pacific Islands face while dealing with Pacific Rim countries and ASEAN members. While, it is great to see the emphasis put on island nations as being an important part of the larger Asia Pacific context, what becomes evident is how much of catching up the islands region has to do in order to do business seamlessly with Asian nations. For instance, the ASEAN will be a single market in 2015. While this presents great opportunities, it also puts forth administrative and logistical challenges.

In a globalised world, the importance of ICT and connectivity cannot possibly be overstated. That’s where great opportunities lie for the islands. Opportunities in back office support operations, call centres and other related services. This becomes evident at the presentations. Tongan Call Centre operator ProComm Services makes a compelling case for such business initiatives through its Managing Director Sisi Fine – showcasing Pacific Island capability both in terms of technology and human capacity.

The forum is great exposure for the islands. A calling card that spells possibilities is placed in the lair of the Asian Tigers. The trick will be to stay engaged with those countries and develop business and trade possibilities over the coming months and years. The possibilities are indeed tremendous and very real. It’s a matter of how well the region rises to the occasion.

As I leave the venue, my thoughts are on how long it will take me to get to the airport. It took me five hours the other day. I still have six before my flight. I ask a few people how long it will take me to get to the airport. I get differing replies – from 1 hour to 4 “depending on mob,” everyone says. I decide to play it safe and hop into a cab a full five hours ahead of my flight. I get to Suvarnabhumi in an amazing 45 minutes – leaving me four hours to scour the duty free shops in the comfort of my wheelchair.

Meanwhile, the unrest in Bangkok is simmering away, with all the signs of coming to a boil.

First appeared in December 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine

Pizza worth coming back to Fiji for

Dev Nadkarni

You might not associate pizza with Fiji the way you would a Bula shirt or a tanoa, but we’re talking of the very special Mama’s Pizza here – one that’s as iconic of Fiji as the colourful shirt and the distinctively carved wooden bowl.

And perhaps the only reason it’s not as well known to visitors as the Bula shirt and tanoa has more to do with the humble, understated and soft spoken style of the amazing Mama who created the first, authentically Fijian pizza way back in 1984. Yes, Mama’s turns 30 next year.

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Mama’s Pizzas are different. If you’re the type who thinks a pizza is a pizza is a pizza, Mama’s will make you think again. You notice the difference the very moment you dig your teeth into your first wedge. Though you will be sitting in a typical pizza eatery setting, you will happily notice that what you are eating is not the run of the mill, mass produced product – but one that’s been made with fresh ingredients with some characteristic flavours and with great care.

After all, Mama or Robin Ragg first began making pizzas for her own little kids when they were growing up. Robin (“It’s with an ‘i’ not ‘y’ because my parents wanted me to be a boy,” she says) loved to cook for her two girls and a boy. But that pleasurable activity turned into a small business to support the family, when she had to go through a divorce in the early 1980s.

“My father put his house on the line to borrow the funds for our first pizza restaurant which we started in 1984 on Nadi town’s main strip,” Robin says. The first few weeks were spent trialing her fare and collecting feedback. “I made a note of every comment and tried to use it to make the pizzas the way people wanted them.”

Mama’s big break came when she was able to tickle of the palates of the wealthy local Gujarati Indian community. “The would come in big groups on Sundays and order different pizzas. A couple of times I noticed they carried some condiments from home to sprinkle on the pizzas before they ate them,” Robin recalls. “It was like BYO toppings for my pizzas.” She got talking with them and noticed that they were a mix of assorted herbs and Indian spices.

Offering to experiment for them, Robin through much trial and error came up with the perfect topping mix to produce the popular ‘Nadi Special’. The pizza is the most popular on the menu even after 30 years. Interestingly, it remains popular despite being a completely vegetarian pizza (many in the Gujarati community are vegetarians, for whom the original recipe was created).

It’s not just with the Gujaratis or Indians that the Nadi special is a hit. Tourists – especially the growing ranks of vegetarians – adore it and come back for more. Taking a cue from the success of the Nadi Special, Robin experimented with other flavours too and came up with some other all time favourites – The Big Bird and the recently launched Tandoori Chicken.

Of course, Mama’s dishes out most of the regular all time favourites like Mozzarella, Hawaiian, Meat Lovers, Napolitano and others. Her other innovations include the Pacific Rim, which is a seafood delight, the Super Vegetarian, which takes the Nadi Special to new heights and a Prawn and a Tuna topped pizza with Mama’s special sauce.

Mama has fine tuned the flavours of her fare to such uniqueness, that an entire generation of Fijians, no matter where in the world they live, long to dig into a Mama’s Pizza whenever they come to Nadi.

Mama’s makes its own sauces and spice mixes. “We make most of the ingredients ourselves and have a trusted set of growers for good produce,” Robin says. She puts the success of Mama’s to strict quality control and listening to customer feedback. In all these years, Mama’s has grown from a single restaurant to three – Nadi town, Namaka and Denarau. Robin has assiduously kept away from big commercial ambitions despite franchise offers from Suva, Sigatoka and even as far afield as Auckland and Sydney.

“Locals who have migrated come back to eat Mama’s Pizza whenever they are in the Nadi area. Why, some of them even take back our pizzas to the US when they go back,” says Rebecca Hughes, Mama’s Pizza Duty Manager. Robin is particular of the value for money proposition that her pizzas deliver. “She wants to use the best ingredients and even if their prices go up, she is reluctant to change the price tags of the pizzas,” Rebecca adds.

True to her brand name, Robin is mama not just to her pizzas – she cares greatly for her staff. Several of the 38 people who work at the three restaurants have been with Mama’s since the first pizza was sold. “You’re only as good as your staff,” she says.

If you’re in Nadi, don’t miss the Mama’s Pizza experience. You’ll probably return to Fiji just for it.

First appeared in Discover Fiji magazine, December 2013