How much free can we afford ‘free’ : the question of free trade

trade clipart

Source: dreamstime.com

 

The reason why we don’t see – so far – any major wars as massive as World War II can be attributed to the importance of international trade. If I were in Nobel Peace Prize selection committee – boy, I swear – I would no doubt award this to the whole ‘free trade’ notion, in its entirety. Seven decades after one of the largest military conflicts in human civilization ended, we have overseen an exponential increase of global trade, enabling the creation of the largest middle-class in the world in history (in spite of inequality).

No doubt, we should also be thankful to the United States, the world superpower which, forsaken for its disastrous, naivete-driven mistakes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and numerous failed interventions, has established a long-standing international structure that conditions the whole world to trade. The country’s former adversaries, such as Germany, Japan, and even Russia (after Soviet Union collapsed), have rapidly industrialized themselves due to the stability established by American global leadership. Even China, the world’s second largest economy and possibly a future superpower by itself, will still have to, to some extent, play by the standards established in Bretton Woods, because the country simply gains tremendous benefits from the system. Never before we have seen international trade being conducted at a massive scale (over 23 trillion US$ last year in world export volume), a figure unimaginable if looking back 70 years prior.

And never before, also, we have seen international politics being so intricately complicating when trade itself is not simply an instrument of international politics itself; trade itself, in fact, has turned into politics. For decades, the whole world has attempted – and foundered – in its attempt to install a global free-trade regime, the most obvious failure of which can be illustrated from Doha Rounds (albeit there’s modest progress in Bali Package in 2013). When trade, in principle, serves as a powerful deterrent of war by itself, why is the whole world so frightened with plans for a global free-trade regime?

One answer (from my perspective): the whole world is still not ready. I’ll make this slightly science-fiction, but if we refer to Kardashev’s civilization theory, we are still on a very long path to achieve Type-1 civilization (when humanity can afford to harness energy from the entire planet, something we are still struggling to do so today). At a current scale, we are still on 0.7. To complete the other 0.3, most scientists have estimated that it will take, at most, one more century, or faster, either six or seven decades. The world in Type-1 civilization, just imagine, is the world where political sovereignty does not matter so much anymore, let alone in territorial borders. Just think how much we can afford when the entire planet can run on electricity, full time, utilizing all the existing potential this planet can offer. It is also the time when tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and ocean waves can generate electricity, most cheaply one cent at a time. While such marvels still prevail in research papers and small pilot projects, we have quite a number of global phenomena that have globalized our world today. Internet, English, and smartphones have conquered the world, but they are just the beginning, and even then, many people have sensed a rupture with its sheer, unprecedented rapidity in the scale. Are we globalizing too fast? Are we altering meanings and symbols into mere simulations? Are we ready for a future where there is no longer a visible border in all aspects? This is one main reason why global free-trade agenda fails.

And, see, even though it’s already 2015 out there, the world remains, at itself, a hybrid between people who want to live in the past and those who aspire to seize the future. Rather than turning it into a big convergence, the current discourse, instead, results in a big polarization. 3 billion people still live in abject poverty, earning less than 2 US$ a day. More than half of the world’s countries are still severely lacking in infrastructure access, another inhibiting factor in the creation of free trade. How will you, given these variables, allow them to compete with those in the developed world? This is also another challenge in readiness. Because we know when free trade promotes competition, competition enhances efficiency, and oftentimes, the notion of ‘efficiency’ itself can be as brutal as the word ‘murder’. For losing industries, a huge number of jobs will be ‘massacred’, while those that maximize innovation and efforts in creativity will emerge as the major victors. How will you allow them to compete with those in the developed world, again?

And this is not simply a battle between developing world and developed world. The latter also feel threatened by the massive, cost-efficient labor forces that the former can offer. China’s miracle may have been over, but India, Southeast Asia, and Africa are the next waves of economic revolution. Population growth remains high in these regions, generally, and they are promising future markets for multinational firms. So what about unskilled workers in industrialized countries? How will you make sure, not that they feel ‘protected’, but rather less harmed, by the savagery of efficiency promoted by the whole idea of free trade? While European countries have a comprehensive social welfare scheme (that may also explain why they are not so competitive), US does exactly the opposite. The country promotes free trade, very actively, but at the same time, there is inadequate spending in upgrading infrastructure, training workers, and even enhancing social protection for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Free trade is great, I must admit, but too much free trade, if unprepared, can result in greater inequality. The key is in stronger social welfare. To ensure the workers are equipped with adequate working skills, they need to be trained. And this is where education, and vocational assistance, play a huge role. To ensure that the workers, and consumers, can live healthily and work productively, there needs a comprehensive healthcare scheme. But, most importantly, is the preparation for adjusting to disruptive technologies in the future. We have had 3D printers, autonomous cars, battery factories, and the Internet-of-things. Once they are launched into the market, millions of jobs will be affected, and significantly, the volumes of trade as well. And this is where free trade will go in maximizing their potential, because, again, in the sake of efficiency, whichever trend does not matter. The most crucial, and urgent, concern is to persuade them how to face up to new realities, and continue to innovate in competing to formulate and create the best products in global market.

I do not see global free trade being possible in the next 10 years, but in 20 years, it is more likely. As global export volume doubles every decade, the rise will continue to be on an exponential path. What I can see now, most likely, is the sprawling of mega-regional and bilateral free trade agreements, most notably right now, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), or China’s new initiatives such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). If we monitor at the news very closely, even to grant President Obama a fast-track authority proves such impeccable, and painstakingly difficult, struggle. Both TPP and TTIP, which ‘only’ cover 12 countries in Pacific Rim and 28 European Union members, do not represent the entire Asia and Europe, but even multiple deadlines still have not enabled these agreements to be passed into notion.

The age of free trade does not ‘end’ as some advocates voice their concerns; it is just the beginning, but with big hurdles everyone needs to overcome.

Reality check: God, and the unending debate of existence

god sculpture

 

 

There is an acute tendency, as always, between the theists and the atheists to debate about the S-word: supreme. Some extreme atheists, like those adhering to Christopher Hitchens (who sadly passed away due to alcoholism and smoking problems), or the intellectual snobbishness of Richard Dawkins, have this idea in mind that ‘religious people are mediocre and stupid’. The other extreme side perceives only their religion can show the path to enlightenment, or else hell is bent within the limits. Especially with the advent of social media, it is inescapable, for us oftentimes, to see how these arguments embroil themselves into zero-sum games. One tries so hard to convince the others only his or her thought can be ever justified. And that is truly fallacious.

Debate about the existence of God, after all, is the most stupendous thing to have been preconceived in conversations in our society. Not just it is, on its most fundamental core, devoid of meaning, but also unwise considering both people’s perceptions and points of view. Why are we debating, then, about, well, how you can call it, nothingness or ‘somethingness’?

We debate, after all, to prove who can solicit the most convincing evidence for the audience. When it comes to the existence of God, Supreme Being, The Only One, The Creator, or whatever you can call, nonetheless, it is a whole different thing. Debate, on its most essential aspect, should be emphasized on the search of facts and truth, as well as understanding overlapping perspectives resulting from the substances themselves. God, on the other hand, is not a matter of fact, truth, or substance; ‘God’, after all, is a matter of belief, all eventually depending on whether you have faith or not. Why are we debating so hard, after all, to force people to believe what we believe, when in fact they have their own customs and traditions?

Atheists say: “Had God existed, the world would have been devoid of problems.”

Theists respond: “God creates the problems so that humanity can learn from their mistakes much better.”

I think both statements have their pros and cons. In almost all religions we adhere to, we all know the virtues of altruism, and how doing good deeds saves us from calamity in the future. At the least, that ‘a supreme entity above will closely protect us’. Then there come wars, disasters, and other uncountable, unexpected crises, and things start to turn upside down. We see from reports people savagely killed by terrorists, children enslaved, some horribly dead in numerous accidents, and other calamitous occurrences. Some people question the validity of ‘God’, but some people, surprisingly, encounter their own miracles. We hear reports of babies surviving earthquakes, toddlers still alive after buildings bombarded by planes, or other lucky people miraculously barely having any wounds from severe disasters. Others, on the other hand, point out that such miracles are ‘God’s intervention’. Yes, we all acknowledge that things oftentimes happen beyond our own scientific construction, and some may definitely point out ‘the presence of the sacred order that makes things happen’.

The truth is that we know nothing about everything. Because both arguments can be correct at certain times.

After all, perceiving God is a matter of perspectives. Imagine when we take a picture of a bridge using various lenses of a camera. When you zoom to its maximum, you see bricks. When you focus down over, you see rivers. When you focus it much higher, you see towers and the sky. When you take it from left angle, you probably see houses and other low-lying structures. When you look at the right angle, you probably see skyline and other tall buildings. The main thing is plain simple: you want to take a picture of a bridge, but you can get numerous different outcomes from it. It is the same thing when thinking about God. Either you are religious or atheistic (fortunately things are much more open in this century), it does not matter anymore. After all, we live in a universe where Murphy’s Law exists. Things that will go wrong, will go wrong. Anything that can happen, can happen. At the least, however, some people will need the mental construction of God, not as a matter of substance, but rather as a matter of upholding moral values, in spite of unexpected circumstances. One of the greatest marvels in human civilization, for all the centuries of savagery, is their eventual ability to understand ethics and moral virtues. And ‘God’, sometimes for a certain part, plays a big role in making that possible (even though many cultures have ‘Gods of wars’ in their spiritual beliefs).

So, in the end, if you ask me whether I believe in God or not, here’s my simplest answer: “Whether God exists or does not exist, I do not challenge that position.” I’d rather be a freethinker.

 

Reality check: capital punishment

scales-of-justice-clip-art2

 

There has been so much hype in mass media with the impending execution of two of Bali Nine drug syndicate members, and both countries, Australia and Indonesia, have seemingly played chicken in an intense nationalistic manner about ‘which one is the most righteous’. Some Australians pioneered ‘Mercy’ campaign, and Indonesian media counter-attacked it with surveys showing majority of Australians actually support death sentence for these drug convicts. President Joko Widodo has restated his intention not to give clemency to their repeated pleas, and PM Tony Abbott has accused the former of being ruthless. And he mentioned the huge amounts of Australian aid towards 2004 Aceh tsunami victims, and another huge, nation-bewildering campaign known as ‘Coin for Australia’ was initiated by several Indonesians to return the humanitarian aids already distributed by the government. To and fro, back and forth, everyone is trying to show who is the real savior.

I am here not in position to support or to oppose capital punishment. Taking it at a utilitarian perspective – I’m sorry if it sounds inhumane, capital punishment, as much as there is little scientific evidence that shows its effectiveness in reducing crime rates, is all but an inherent part of a country, or a region’s, basic constitution, and sovereign states basically have authorities to exercise that power, no matter how the other side of the world may deride it. As capital punishment is stipulated in Indonesia’s basic constitution, suffice it to say, there is no doubt that other countries are obliged to respect whatever the decisions being handed on by local courts for any violations of rules. So much as Australians despise Indonesians’ overwhelming support for death sentence, it would be worthwhile to look at other nearby countries like Malaysia and Singapore, both of which were former fellow British colonies. And more people had actually been executed in both countries for drug offences compared to the number of those back in Indonesia.

But, from my own perspective, I see ironies. 11 people, 8 charged with drug offences, and 3 others for premeditated, first-degree murders, will soon face firing squads as early as this March, after previously 6 people faced firing squads in early January. Is capital punishment a powerful deterrent? Can these persons afford the chances of rehabilitation? Have they fully repented and successfully contributed back to society? Are they psychopaths? These are the questions that always linger on when it comes to thinking about the fates of these would-be executed.

We can pride ourselves in killing a small few number of people for committing big mistakes, but we must not forget the even more grave mistakes ever committed by others, say, massive human rights abuses. Have we afforded the similar courage to do the same thing towards a military commander who orders forced disappearances of activists? Have we afforded the same courage to execute a former monarch who led a devastating war and killed millions of people in the process? Do we have the courage to put on trial high-level officials, who, hiding their malign faces with make-believe attitude, are actually siphoning off taxpayers’ money? Are we daring enough to admit that our prior generation had once participated in mass violence? Have we successfully captured corrupt corporate leaders who took away, unfairly, bailout money? Why do we show our pride killing this unlucky dozen when we have not even gathered our own courage to go deep down beyond the tips of these huge icebergs?

Leaving this essay unanswered (I can’t afford to answer it as I believe there will never be definitive answers), let me conclude it in this way. Once justice is compromised, capital punishment is no different from killing mice and cockroaches in the houses of unseen robbers, while the robbers are doing their job.

Short film: The Brain Hack

It starts with the simplest premise: who is God? Who, in the name of Divine Creator as humankind has always looked for inspiration, is the supreme being? How to get close to God, in literal sense?

This 19-minute short film offers a brilliant plot about a computer science major, talented in analyzing geometric patterns across sculptures and artwork across the world, and a film student who teem up together to create the best possible route to discover ‘God’ – that is, by means of some sort of neurological manipulation. Nonetheless, as their experiment has become gradually successful, terrors from a secret religious group begin to disrupt their daily lives. How will the duo cope with the menace?

Watch it till the end. Beware if you have epilepsy, though.

Hint: it has a twist.

Opinion: Indonesia’s political Theatre of the Absurd

puppet

Picture by Edward Ricardo Sianturi. View more of his artwork in his link.

 

In something that looks like a plot for an absurdist fiction play, President Joko Widodo declared Commissioner General Budi Gunawan, already named a suspect by Indonesia’s anti-graft agency Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as the sole nominee for chairmanship in the country’s national police forces.

Things become even more surreal as the country’s national parliament, notoriously known for resembling more like a whole vaudeville set of plays, insisted to conduct ‘fit-and-proper test’ towards Mr.Budi, under a legally acceptable but logically imperceptible rationale: this person shall maintain his presumption of innocence until the high court declares him ‘the defendant’. And, in a somewhat tragic act, almost the whole parliament, opposition and pro-government alike, gave the police official a high-marked approval.

Imagine if a little child, anyone you can imagine, watches the recent television news, what will he or she respond? What will he or she tell their parents? What will the dialogue look like?

“Mom! Dad! A bad guy will become police chief sooner or later!”

Could it be a Murakamian reply that his parents instead say:

“Isn’t it the fact that cops are nothing more than state-controlled malefactors?”

“So who’s a cop, my parents?”

“Rat-eating cats, these are the cops, my child!”

We all knew President Joko Widodo was the reason why nearly 71 million voters across the country, including its global diaspora numbered at millions strong, gave their full support during last year’s most intense presidential election. Across social media, there has never been such strong sense of enthusiasm, particularly among the youth and first-time voters. Skepticism among adult generation aside, who has been living under decades of authoritarian rule, the youth gave Indonesia a new flagrant voice of what ‘democracy’ truly means. Yes, we saw spats occurring between supporters of both candidates, but we saw even more humane faces endorsing their candidates, for something they truly believe in. In any election, to garner victory, it’s always crucial to buy voters’ faith, something that leverages their legitimacy to ascend the leadership seat of a nation.

And we all knew there were out there millions of volunteers, driven by their own hearts, sacrificing anything they could to support Joko Widodo. They saw in him a changemaker. He’s transformed his hometown, Surakarta, into a regional tourism hub, and spruced up Indonesia’s national capital, Jakarta, in both urban planning and budget management. Despite the huge amount of black campaign being directed towards him and his supporters, excluding massive funding to mass media to divert people away from endorsing his agenda, he eventually won the election, thus becoming the country’s first democratic-era civilian president.

But in what appeared like French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s ‘precession of the simulacra’ theory, things will eventually run out of their original notion and meanings, bound by Icarian limits of this profane world. The president-elect eventually conceded to political pressure by his inner circle to provide some ministerial seats in his cabinet; personally I would still tolerate that. Human rights abusers were awarded and pardoned; again, sometimes, in this world where many questions will never have true answers, we all must understand our own Icarian limits. To and fro, out of an existential reason that some portions of this nation were built under the blood of millions shed in internal power struggles, the President had not initiated some measures to restart special courts for crimes against humanity taking place decades before. We all know the reason why: many of the parties involved still possess powerful political patronage, in both incumbent government and opposition, and not to be hypocritical myself, including several elites within the President’s inner circle.

And here comes the most logic-defying moment in the first three months of the President’s tenure: a graft suspect will (if President approves) become the country’s highest police officer. Parliament members continued to ask public leniency of Budi’s appointment as national police chief, with all possible mind-bending reasons they could offer. Where will this country go, pardon my dramatic question? What will the children, little toddlers everywhere, respond? Who will be their role models when even a top official himself is tainted with cases? How will the public be expected to conform to the laws when even the upholders of justice themselves can’t control themselves? Say, from the simplest thing to do, obeying the traffic laws, one that even looks a make-believe fantasy for millions of riders across this country. Some people remain blinded to the notion that ‘the smallest rip can induce a huge wave of repercussions’.

This scenario apparently looks more and more like a plot for any Theatre of the Absurd play: the main character eventually becomes a puppet under shadowy, invisible, formidable forces, doing all the tragedies while the forces above are laughing, and the surrounding people are lashing at him with uncontrolled anguish. Will the President eventually fall under the black-hole of his surrounding circle? There are four years and nine more months for him to go, and this certainly will be a heavy sojourn. We’ll have to see, and we’ll have to carefully observe.

Increasing competitiveness: a challenge in Hong Kong’s tertiary education

hong kong

 

 

Yesterday, someone in our Facebook group for international students posted an article, as titled ‘give the opportunity back to local students‘. Penned by a Legislative Council member, this piece uncomfortably raised the issue about ‘reducing quota for non-local students’ per 2016/2017 academic year.

Or, just in brief, I’ll sum up some important points mentioned:

1. Among 15,000 university seats reserved each year for all institutions in Hong Kong, 20% (or 3,000 among them) are solely reserved for non-local students (notably students from China and overseas).

2. This rate of 20%, implemented since 2008, was a drastic increase compared to 4% back in 1996. Among the 3,000 seats for non-locals, one-fifth will be enrolled in courses fully endorsed and funded by government under a stipulation known as ‘university grants committee (UGC)’.

3. There has been notable concern among local students in regard to the diminishing opportunities for them to reserve places in universities, aside of the fact they have to undergo rigorous high-school curriculum (something very common in Asia’s developed countries).

4. What’s the government’s response? Sounds like a ‘fairly simple’ solution: they are considering to eliminate all UGC-funded options for non-local students, which, if passed in legislation, will be implemented as rapidly as 2016/2017 academic year.

While there is no denying that increasing local competitiveness is essential for long-term economic viability of a country/region, doing such measure towards non-local students does sound like, my prior apologies, some kind of jingoist campaign done in any Third World country. Such reality is ironic when it comes to facing globalization, particularly in the beginning of 21st century. With international mobility accelerating everywhere, as well as economic challenges that are becoming increasingly multifaceted and intricate, there is no doubt we need outside talent for some sectors. No matter how unpopular it may sound for local populace, if we rethink about it from a pragmatic point of view, we still need international resources.

But this is Hong Kong, a metropolis its own government so proudly labels as ‘Asia’s world city’.

Talking from a perspective as an international student, there are some concerns in my mind I think I need to express here.

The real roots of the ongoing education problem in Hong Kong lie in the diminishing competitiveness of the city and the funding problem. Just take the education budget as one example. According to annual statistics by Hong Kong government, in 2013/2014 academic year, total education expenditure equals 76.9 billion HK$, approximately 17.6 percent of total expenditure. That is a pretty high percentage compared to South Korea (15.5%), Japan (10.5%), or even China (12.1%). Afterwards, consider the 2013/2014 UGC budget allocated by the government. In 2012/2013 academic year, the amount provided was 15.8 billion HK$, but in 2013/2014 year, instead, the figure slightly dropped to 15 billion HK$. Why the drop occurred? I’m no expert on education expenditure in Hong Kong, but as what I skim and assume from the paper, this possibly suggests there’s substantial reduction in funding towards public institutions. And we all must consider that ONLY 4% of the UGC goes to non-local students, or approximately, as of last year, 600 million HK$. Does eliminating that option completely can increase local intakes in years to come? The answer is yes, but in the long term, Hong Kong’s vision of being ‘an international education hub’ will face further erosion.

Or go for another particular illustration: Hong Kong’s research and development (R&D) budget. In order to positioning oneself as an education hub, it is inevitable that research activities must be intensified. While Hong Kong is always well known to have competed with its Southeast Asian ‘twin’, Singapore (by which the former succeeds in financial services sector), the latter seems to excel much better in education. Just compare how the two city-states spend their money in research: while Singapore has invested over 9 billion US$ to strengthen its quality research in 2014 (source: Battelle), a figure that approaches 2.7% of GDP, Hong Kong’s gross expenditure on R&D remains a mere 15.6 billion HK$ (app. 2 billion US$), a disproportionately low 0.7% of the metropolis’ total GDP. This figure is even three times lower if compared with Mainland China’s investment in R&D, which now goes at 2% of its GDP (refer again to Battelle). With now average research expenditure required to be at least 2% of GDP to boost economic productivity, and for an ideal education hub expected to exceed such percentage, this is an ironic understatement that this Chinese autonomous region still has a very long way to go in achieving so.

Last year’s QS World University Rankings report has also mentioned that Singapore and South Korea were the winners in Asia’s race towards becoming education giants. Both countries have very successfully invested much of the budget to drastically improve their research quality, something that Hong Kong, despite its short-term drop because of major overhaul into four-year curriculum system, has yet to achieve. Internationalization rate among both countries above is rapidly increasing, successfully utilizing all the opportunities globalization can offer, while in Hong Kong, the increase remains largely gradual. In addition, the number of university seats has, sadly, remained unchanged for the last two decades since 1994: at a rate of 15,000 places. While over 28,000 students were actually qualified for higher education opportunities, a dismal 13,000 of them were turned down. Even if the government were to end up eliminating UGC-funded degrees for non-local students starting from 2016 onward, there will remain tens of thousands of ‘lost chances’ for much of Hong Kong’s young generation to attend tertiary education in their own soil (whose university attendance rate is among the lowest in developed world, at a chronically low rate of 18% only).

I’m very afraid the government will take another misplaced decision in the battle for this city’s future.

Comeback: rethinking myself as a blogger

Calvin and Hobbes

 

It’s been three-and-a-half uneasy years managing this blog. Not about finding the right vocabulary itself makes blogging sometimes a formidable task (well, at some aspect finding the right expression ain’t an easy job); neither it is about being lackadaisical of topics – I have a lot, and to some extent, just too much, to cover in this blog; nor is it about authoring a lengthy post, which many friends of mine used to complain about.

I’ve just been too strict towards myself in doing the blog, while stat view remains infinitesimal. For many times I have contemplated to end this blog, citing its lack of coverage, that make-a-post-once-in-two-days disciplinary conundrum, and (sigh) its seemingly too-idiosyncratic-to-know content. Well, after a breath, sometimes you just think you can’t always win the fight with this world. People mostly do bother to know the real truth, and will pretty much get themselves entertained with ‘partial truth’. Again, somewhat, we can’t always win. My 3.5-year-old blog is infinitely smaller than most Youtube videos about cats, babies, webcam-singing brouhaha and conspiracy theories. But surrendering it will not sound wiser, though. Something inside me reminds me of an ideal blog – focus on people, not the number of people viewing this blog. Whenever I look at some fellow friends of mine, having posted on their blogs for years – regardless of its small stat views – they just don’t stop. We blog (ideally) because we don’t crave for people’s attention; we want people to think, of what we express, in another perspective. I think that’s where we shouldn’t stop reminding ourselves as bloggers.

We can’t always win. If someone is destined for divine intervention, let them be.