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.

 

2014: year in review (by countries, part 3)

2014

 

This is the last article from the series reviewing events that have taken place across different countries this year. Now the last day in 2014, my only expectation towards 2015 is a better year ahead, albeit some difficulties, and some challenges, accumulated from past mistakes, will continue to befall us.

As I forgot to include Hong Kong and Mexico in the first two parts, I’ll just put them here.

 

Hong Kong – if this semi-autonomous region of 7.2 million people used to be known rather for dim sum, skyscrapers, action films, and Jackie Chan, now Hong Kong filled international headlines in 2014 with ‘protests’ being the most popular keyword. Triggered largely in part due to the latest decision by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee in having to screen out candidates in the upcoming 2017 Chief Executive election, which would be the first direct election in Hong Kong, this marked what had been more than two decades of impatience Hong Kong public has been faced in gaining universal suffrage. While the city has achieved monumental economic success since 1970s, the most crucial issues that have never been addressed are the worsening social inequality (Hong Kong is ranked the worst among developed regions’ Gini index, now reaching a staggering level of almost 0.56), astronomical home prices which most people can hardly afford, increasing living costs with low social safety nets, as well as erosion of freedom of expression, by which Hong Kong’s rank, according to Freedom House, has fallen drastically from among the top 15 in 2004 to now 61 a decade after.

But Hong Kong also inspired the world what ‘civil disobedience’ truly meant. Despite several scuffles (mostly infiltrated by certain elements), no buildings were damaged (except the Legislative Councils headquarters’ front window), no cars were burned, and life goes on fairly normal on most parts of the city. People helped each other, students continued to do their homework and studied at night, some set up medical clinics, and others even assisted in trash collection and recycling activities. There is hardly any place doing a civilized protest as Hong Kong has shown.

Mexico – this country of 115 million has long been faced with a massive drug war, having seen more than 100,000 people killed by both security forces and similarly heavily-armed drug cartels, but the forced disappearances of 43 university students, and their subsequent killings, marks the climax of this war, with millions of civilians coming out to the streets to protest both the government and drug lords, who have remained somewhat hypocritical and vicious in this matter. The murder started with student protests in Iguala, by which local police responded with mass suppression, and the subsequent kidnapping of 43 students. Nonetheless, having handed them down to drug lords instead to prosecutor’s office, and having these people brutally murdered, mutilated, and their body remains completely burned, this became what triggered the people to really show their anger. Such tragedy deals another further blow to the country’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who has long been criticized for being hypocritical and not doing enough to solve many of Mexico’s crucial issues.

Pakistan – three gargantuan events have shaken this country throughout the year. Firstly, there’s this mass protest known as Azadi March, by which millions of people again went to the streets to demand an end to the country’s first democratically-elected government, led by Nawaz Sharif. Nonetheless, there remained suspicions that these protests were actually organized by certain elements with close ties to intelligence and military forces, notoriously known to have been partially infiltrated by several Taliban movements. The military itself had previously been in charge of the country’s leadership for decades, the climax of which was the ascendancy of Pervez Musharraf into the power, ending in 2008 after mass protests led by civilians. This march, for the first time, becomes a major test to Sharif’s government to which extent he could balance fragile relations between the authority, critically needing the support of security forces, and the military themselves.

Another one was Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to both Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, both hailing from cognate countries long involved in decades-old conflicts over numerous issues: Pakistan and India. Both of them were actively involved in advocacy towards children’s rights and education, and had faced formidable obstacles in their respective home countries. No matter how often the two nations clash, it was hoped the shared visions of Malala and Kailash could inspire both people to appreciate each other much better.

But the last one remains what becomes the most tragic closing event for the country’s 2014. Taliban, known for always targeting military forces and intelligence services, this time targeted a school attended by innocent kids. More than 150 people, mostly students, were brutally murdered by the ambush led by Taliban forces in Peshawar, leading to huge civilian protests, and a harsh crackdown by Pakistani government into the militants. While it is deplorable to see how US drones continuously invade civilian places – further encouraging Taliban to conduct more attacks, robbing the lives of innocent kids, dreaming hard of a better future, is another useless eye for an eye.

Qatar – other than Al Jazeera as its global media outlet, the country has faced another international scrutiny in regard to alleged abuse of migrant workers in this oil-and-gas-rich tiny Gulf state. With population of migrant workers 1.7 million strong, or 75% of its whole population, how the country handles these people remains a question, especially as Qatar has been selected for 2022 World Cup, with a fantastically planned expenditure of 220 billion US$. It is estimated that among 1.7 million foreign workers residing in this country, majority of them do not have enough social protection from the respective government. What those people will experience in the years to come until 2022 remains a huge stake for Qatar’s credibility, nonetheless.

Russia – first, the world was surprised by how ‘unusual’ Winter Olympics had been, as shown by how the 50-billion-dollar project in Sochi turned into a completely gargantuan white elephant. Many stadiums ended up in decrepitude, hotels were largely unfurnished, and the city turned up pretty merely throughout the Olympics’ season, only to subsequently end up neglected much of the time afterwards.

After Sochi, Kremlin once again shook the world with its subsequent annexation of Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine, a Russian-dominant territory Soviet Union once awarded to the latter back in 1950s. As though not done with Crimea, Moscow continued to silently support pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk, once one of the country’s most important industrial cities, now turning into a war zone. More than 4,000 people had been killed in the conflict lasting more than 9 months, and it is not expected the conflict will end anytime soon.

Sanctions and a drastic drop in oil prices themselves, again, give this country a hard slap. Ruble values have sharply declined by more than 70%, the worst performing this year, excluding the estimated capital flight at more than 130 billion US$ this year. Foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, have evaporated almost 50%, leaving the country with less than 200 billion US$ to anticipate the crisis. Worst, Russia’s oil revenues will drop between 90 and 140 billion US$ this year, making 2014 the worst year for this country of 142 million after 1998.

Next year, former Soviet states like Estonia and Kazakhstan will have to be very careful of their giant neighbor.

South Korea – the sinking of MV Sewol became an international spotlight. Over 300 high school students out of 460 people on board a passenger ship heading to Jeju Island were killed as the ship perished at sea, and the reason was what gave the public enough outrage to be expressed at the national government, currently led by President Park Geun-hye: the ship itself has exceeded its sailing age, and there is certain extent of negligence by ship crew when the accident happened. This accident prompted a suicide case by the students’ vice principal, resignation by prime minister, and the subsequent disbandment of the country’s transport safety commission. Also, what was highlighted here is the continued issue of corruption, as well as collusion of power between government and major corporations controlling a large share of the country’s economy.

Another controversial issue is the widespread violence experienced by many servicemen during military service, as recently illustrated by the mass shooting in a military base by one of them.

Sudan / South Sudan – the world’s newest sovereign state faces a devastating civil conflict that had killed thousands of people since last year, driven largely in part by former vice president Riek Machar’s rebellion attempt against the government currently led by Salva Kiir. Millions of people were internally displaced, and governmental functions were mostly paralyzed. Nonetheless, despite infrequent coverage of these two countries, they remain widely discussed within international relations discourse given the influence of the soon-to-be superpower: China. Having staked out many oil and gas possessions in both countries, it is highly important for Beijing to create an uneasy counterpoise and political compromise between them, while also ensuring internal security in South Sudan to not interfere with their extraction activities. This country, in many geopolitical estimates, will become a ‘knot’ in determining of how Chinese foreign policy will transform in the years to come.

Syria – the country’s civil war, which has killed over 200,000 people within 3 years, doesn’t show any signs of abating. The nation remains largely divided, with Bashar al-Assad’s government still having a stronghold in the largely Southern part, while much of the North has fallen to both various rebel groups (often clashing against each other and against the government) and ISIS. Thousands of civilians, former government troops, and various tribal fighters have fallen victim to the savagery displayed by the Islamic State, and with the reluctance of both Assad’s government and rebelling coalitions to dialogue, despite an attempted peace talk brokered by Russia, it is expected that the country’s civil war will not subside anytime soon, even in two or three years to come.

Taiwan – 2014 was particularly not a really good year for this island country. In March, most of the central government was paralyzed by the largest mass protest ever organized since the 1990 democratization, with hundred thousands of students occupying Legislative Yuan’s headquarters in Taipei for nearly one month. This protest was largely triggered by China-Taiwan trade agreements, which many feared would give Beijing a stronger economic leverage towards the country’s survival. With bilateral trade between both countries surpassing 170 billion US$, or 30% of Taiwan’s overall annual volume, and Taiwan’s largest corporations benefiting the most, much of the public is concerned how this free trade policy will determine the country’s long-term existence.

Two more disasters befell Taiwan, with a plane crash in Penghu Islands, and a massive gas pipe explosion in Kaohsiung, devastating several parts and many buildings across the city. Ma Ying-jeou’s administration faced another major blow with the ruling party Kuomintang’s massive defeat in this year’s municipal elections, driven largely in part by public’s increasing dissatisfaction towards the government.

By 2016, with a presidential election already scheduled, this is going to determine the future direction Taiwan will go towards.

Thailand – for the umpteenth time (after nearly 20 times of coup d’etat since early 1930s), Thailand effectively becomes a military junta again, a consequence of lengthy political fights between kingdom-supported military, urban middle-class, and farmers plus rural villagers, who mostly support Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates. To make a long story short, the military junta will not end anytime soon, unless steps have been taken to reconcile both the royalists and the villagers (which so far hasn’t seen any concrete results).

Turkey – When Russia has Putin, Turkey has Erdogan. The mass protests originating from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which later spread into the entire country last year, failed to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government; instead, it gave him further legitimacy to alter the current state of Turkey. Beforehand a three-term prime minister, previously hailed for his successful economic transformation of this country of 70 million, Erdogan has been increasingly faced with scandals involving his inner circles, and his increasingly conservative, and oftentimes iconoclastic, views about Islam and the world. This year, Erdogan is sworn in as the country’s president, eliminating the position of ‘prime minister’. Now being head of state and head of government, with numerous cash-draining, oftentimes ‘white elephant’ projects across the country (including a brand-new one-billion-dollar presidential palace in Ankara), the leader is getting more unpopular across much of the country’s youth.

Ukraine – situated in between European Union and Russia, Ukraine remains in difficult position. Much of the nation was fractured with mass protests taking place from November 2013, which ended with a street battle in February this year. While much of the country demand a complete integration with EU, many important elements within the country also want closer ties with Russia, enticed by Soviet-era stability. The protests, later known as Euromaidan, ended up with a bloodshed killing more than 100 people, and the subsequent escape of Viktor Yanukovich, the country’s deposed pro-Russia president.

Nonetheless, the protests ended up exacerbating the current situation in Ukraine, with many of the pro-Russian civilians taking up weapons and declaring their own republics across much of the Eastern part. The country itself was also faced with another threat on its Western part: Moldova, its neighboring state, served as a Moscow-supported bulwark against Kiev. Crimea and Donetsk has been taken, much of the country remains under war, and worse still, an airliner was bombed.

The current government led by Petro Poroshenko (known as the Ukraine’s Chocolate King) has also been faced with internal infighting within the parliament, giving this conflict an uncertainty when it will end.

United Kingdom –  It’s good that Scotland didn’t split up from the country; otherwise UK would have to rename itself, change its flag, and worse, other constituent countries like Wales and Northern Ireland will possibly follow the same way had Scotland chosen to declare independence.

United States – the world’s largest superpower faces its own largest racial tensions since 1960s, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting large-scale protests nationwide, and subsequent acts of rioting and looting in several towns across the States. A few other African-Americans were also shot down by police, but this also fuels debates whether the police are getting increasingly militarized, or the Blacks are really trying to attack them.

The Republicans’ success in taking control of US Senate gives another blow for Obama’s administration, especially after the last year’s government shutdown in regard to endless debates about Obamacare and other proposed policies that didn’t get passed. With two years left for President Obama, there won’t be much left for him to accomplish given the latter’s strong control of the Senate.

Nonetheless, there’s good news aside: economic recovery has shown its outcome, now at a level of 4%, the highest since Clinton’s era. With Europe still at its teeters, China facing a gradual slowdown, and Japan entering recession, US is now driving the world’s economic growth again for the first time (albeit not so in long term, as long as economic reforms are not activated).

Venezuela – with Hugo Chavez passing away, people once put another populist hope on his former vice president, Nicolas Maduro. It turned out to be wrong: economy remains at a dismal level, and with oil prices further dropping, revenues are increasingly small. Despite Venezuela’s status as currently the world’s largest holder of oil reserves, much of the population remains chronically poor, crime rate remains among the world’s highest (nearly similar to that of war-ravaged nations), and state-organized violence remains dominant in suppressing freedom of expression. Worse, with Maduro’s limited capability in handling the country’s issues, all these invoked massive anger from much of the populace. The country experienced mass protests when hundred thousands of people went to the streets, demanding his resignation.

More than 40 people were shot to death, including former pageants (pageants are the most popular figures in Venezuela, sometimes comparable to government leaders), and Maduro remains in power.

 

 

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Starting from next year, 2015, I will not frequently update this blog anymore, given that there are several things I have had commitment to do so, but this doesn’t spell an end to it (even though there were quite some moments I was considering to simply terminate this blog). It’s just that there are some adjustments I have to do with my schedule, so I hope you, readers, can understand that. I wish you all the best luck ahead, and I’ll see you in 2015.