Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it

 

 

2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.

 

BURMA

myanmar

Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014

 

CUBA

cuba

Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

 

IRAN

iran

Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).

 

 

 

 

Harmonizing US-China trade relations : TPP and RCEP

tpp_rcep2

 

Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS)

 

The realm of US-China relations in 2015 are, indisputably, game-changing and vastly different from US-China relations that we experienced in 2005. A decade has passed, and we have seen the increasingly closing gaps between United States and China in regard to their global power. 2014 was a pivotal year, when for the first time in history, US lost its monopoly of a country with double-digit trillion US$ in terms of GDP values. While the former has managed to accumulate over 17.5 trillion US$ in GDP, China, in that regard, has leapfrogged by adding almost 1 trillion US$, strengthening its position into 10.5 trillion US$ as of last year. It is not simply a matter ‘if’ – the question is simple: when will China overtake the US? My most rational forecasting (humbly speaking, with significant percentages of potential errors) is 10-15 years. Time is running short, and at least, China has succeeded to become the world’s largest economy, if one looks at the country’s purchasing power parity (PPP), at an estimated 17.6 trillion US$. Despite the fact that China has been gradually slowing down to a ‘new normal’ of growth rate, and most recently, the stock market crash taking place in the last one month, it doesn’t mean China has stopped generating its industrial output; the country simply wants to move up one stage into a more ‘high-quality’ economy (how high-quality it will be remains a good question), driven more actively by domestic consumption, and in a pattern widely similar to what Americans did after World War II, international trade. The economic slowing-down has pretty much forced Beijing to expand its trade agenda into a more complex level than before.

China has at least succeeded in some of its international initiatives: the country already established two development banks (AIIB and NDB) in 2014 alone, the ‘One Belt One Road‘ economic initiatives, planned to link Asia, Africa, and Europe into integrated transport and trading networks, have enjoyed significant support from many developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. China is also moving along with free trade agreements, most recently with South Korea and Australia. The biggest one being negotiated right now, RCEP, is set for completion – should all parties agree – before the end of this decade (at most).

These bring challenges to United States, no doubt. Having recently recovered from 2008 financial crisis and hampered by the ongoing bipartisan politics in numerous policy agendas, it is undeniable, therefore, that the world will question if America will still remain relevant as the world’s global power in the decades to come. I dare not answer that question; it has to, to be honest, require a few upcoming presidents, all with sound, carefully planned, and long-term power projection ambitions, while at the same time bridging the bipartisan conflicts of interest. This will not be easy, for sure. Everyone knows how many innumerable difficulties President Barack Obama has encountered in ensuring his proposals pass the Congress. Most recently, the almost-casualty was the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a fast-track, no-Congress-amendment negotiating power critically needed to pass Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest proposed free trade agreement in history. Already an elephant in the room, President Obama only began to aggressively promote and pitch the TPP in 2014 – all despite the fact that United States expressed its interest as early as 2008, and it was poorly-timed as ruptures between Obama and his own allies, Democratic Party, were increasingly deteriorating. It was only through a pragmatic, ironic compromise when Obama decided to gain ‘alliances’ with the Republicans that the fast-track authority was eventually signed into law by end of June 2015, giving him unprecedented negotiating powers with the rest of the trading partners.

Who are in the trade agendas?

Remember, RCEP is not firstly proposed by China. But because China is the largest economic power among all the negotiating parties, there exists perceptions that RCEP is solely a ‘Sino-centric’ initiative. Wrong. Known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it is currently a negotiated, integration-based free trade agreement between 10 ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar) and 6 Asia-Pacific countries by which ASEAN already conducts free trade with in the last few years, notably China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. All combined, the trade agreement comprises nearly 30% of the world’s GDP (approximately 22.5 trillion US$). The primary goal of RCEP is to integrate the existing ASEAN FTAs with the neighboring countries into a single platform. There is a disparity among the countries, of course: Myanmar’s GDP per capita is less than 900 US$, while the levels in Singapore and Australia alone are more than 60-fold larger. Some countries like Cambodia and India also have not developed strong industrial bases, especially in manufacturing, if compared to major powerhouses like Japan and South Korea. That is why the negotiating parties are willing to be more pragmatic in enforcing the trade rules, in particular ensuring that a certain degree of protectionism can be applied to protect sensitive industries, particularly state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the still-dominant driving economic forces in countries like China and Indonesia.

On the other hand, TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) brings in a fewer number of countries compared to the former. Firstly negotiated by Brunei, Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand in 2005, US only entered the negotiation phase near the end of presidency of George W. Bush in 2008. Since Obama’s term, the United States has increasingly played a more pivotal role in ensuring the passage of the agreement. Unlike RCEP, it is a rules-based agreement which, repeatedly touted by Obama administration, attempts to ‘enforce 21st-century gold standards in global economy and redefine international trade’. Currently, the agreement consists of United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand, all the while encompassing 40% of the world’s GDP (approximately 30 trillion US$). Other than TPP, there are also two other trade agendas that are currently being negotiated and proposed: a proposed massive trade agreement with European Union named as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), containing a larger 50% of the world’s GDP (almost 40 trillion US$), and the lesser-known TISA (Trade-in-Services Agreement), which will bring in 50 countries controlling 70% of the world’s GDP, enforcing a near-complete trade liberalization in service industries.

 

tpp new york times

 

Source: The New York Times

 

The idea of TPP is nothing short of controversies, of course. American service industries, and to some extent, also Singaporean, Japanese, and New Zealand will definitely reap the benefits, but median income wages for US manufacturing workers will slightly decline. This is obvious, because the ‘compulsory rules’ in liberalization will force companies to shift production to destinations offering lower labor costs, such as Malaysia, Peru, or Vietnam. Agriculture also remains hotly debated as US and Japan are yet to reach any consensus about the privatization and end of subsidies for Japanese agriculture, while American automakers steadfastly demand any protection measures from competition with Japanese car giants. President Obama also promises that the TPP will enable strict enforcement of labor and environmental protection, but how strict will the rules be enforced remains an unresolved question (most of the drafts are not even released to public). This is particularly concerning given the red-flag reports about labor conditions in Malaysia, Vietnam, as well as in Mexico and Peru. Pharmaceutical prices are also a huge concern, as the Big Pharma insists on intellectual copyrights for the new drugs, therefore posing an obstruction to the creation of generic drugs in developing countries. The impact on state-owned enterprises, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, will be mostly detrimental as well, as the firms will be forced to compete, on equal playing terms, with multinational businesses, especially those from US and Japan themselves. Currency manipulation, never regulated in IMF but proposed to be a punishment-imposing mechanism in TPP, makes both Japan and Malaysia afraid.

Nonetheless, as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was eventually signed into law on late June, there is increasing possibility that the TPP will come into force by either the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016. Even the passage of TPA is not by itself an absolute guarantee the TPP will be passed as well; the House Democrats will continue their ‘rebellion’ in upcoming votes (and there will be a presidential election next year). Still, the completion of this world’s largest free trade agreement, no matter how imperfect it is, will solidify Obama’s presidential legacy before he leaves the office.

Cold trade wars?

There is already much speculation if China and US are involved in some sorts of zero-sum game with the emergence of their TPP and RCEP trade agenda. If one looks at the fact that US does not participate in RCEP, and that China is not in TPP, one will simply take the easiest conclusion that there remains an ongoing ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in the aspect of the two countries’ relationship. Again, this is a matter of perception; such worldview is not necessarily correct, but neither it is wrong, too. There exists, indisputably, a ‘race’ for more international influence from both countries, especially in their economic relationships.

But one does not simply go into a single corner to understand the full picture: China has not fulfilled all the ‘gold standards’ required by US in TPP negotiations, and US does not even have an existing free trade agreement with ASEAN. It is true that only in the recent years that China has gradually attempted to embrace economic reforms in lieu of its slowing-down growth rate, but Rome is not built in a day. The state-owned enterprises, loathed as they are for the inefficiencies, remain the major driving force of Chinese economy, and simply letting them compete with global firms will be analogous to learning to swim in a pond when one does not yet learn to swim in a pool. US participating in RCEP will bring more disadvantages just because US has not yet proposed any FTA with ASEAN member-states (except Singapore), due to the trade diversion effects potentially taking place upon the implementation. And, we all know, American government will not (almost for certain) ‘compromise’ with their high, ‘gold’ standards, largely insisting on the rules instead of the integration.

Major compromise: let it be

In the current format, the only best thing that can be done so far is to let the TPP and RCEP negotiations go separately as usual. None of them has entered into force, realizing that there are just too many issues all the negotiating, concerned countries will have to talk about. Still, sooner or later, even if these agendas eventually fail, trade will still take place as usual among the countries, but just on a wholly different level of integration, and in a way that would be rather chaotic and difficult to integrate. Nonetheless, both China and US realize that these are not simply the fixed-ending initiatives; they are simply the first step to a mega-regional economic integration in the future. TPP will not be limited to 12 countries only, as RCEP is not simply for 16 countries. China has resurrected again the FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific) proposal in APEC 2014 Summit in Beijing. Once an American idea in bringing ‘harmonious’ integration among Asia-Pacific economies, the agenda failed in the early 21st century, given the perceived protectionism imposed by many of the countries at that time. That still exists, of course, to some extent, but given the increasing global economic integration brought about by globalization and disruptive technologies, one can no longer turn back the tide of time. United States can still play a major leadership role in Asia vis-a-vis China, only if the country is willing to let the latter integrate into the global stage. Still, to remain relevant in the world’s largest and most populous continent in a few decades to come, US should ensure that it can play an active economic role in more Asian countries, particularly in formulating a future US-ASEAN FTA. What I see is that US will only begin negotiating for such free trade agreement, if and only if ASEAN member-states can improve their trade regulations upon the adoption of RCEP in a few years. China, and other Asian countries, can also begin negotiating for upgraded versions of TPP, if and only if they can reform their economic structures, and ensure that the state-owned enterprises become more competitive, and more willing to improve their productivity rates. Only through hard compromises, can the TPP and RCEP eventually lead into FTAAP itself, which, I foresee, will take either one, or two decades, or even longer.

I’ve told you, it won’t be an easy, and nice, process. But still, an eventual integration is still minutely possible.

Lessons from Cambodia

DSC_1108

 

For me, it was the second time I visited this country. The last time I had been into here was back in 2012 – when Cambodia took the helms of ASEAN chairmanship, organizing a regional general-knowledge quiz competition. This time, it was an entirely different mission: now working for SIGHT (abbreviation of Student Innovation for Global Health Technology), the first global-health initiative in HKUST pioneered and led by Prof. Ying Chau, our aim now is to introduce two products that have undergone through rigorous brainstorming, prototyping, and development in the last one year. For the software team (the one I’m assigned into), our task is to build a user-friendly electronic medical record system (EMRS) to be used by One-2-One, a New Zealand NGO based largely in Cambodia. The other one, developed by hardware team, is drug dispensary box (DDX), a medical box that enables flexible, and more arranged, drug storage system. The whole 9 days that we all spent, from June 8 to 16, were undeniably exhausting, but at the same time also life-changing and thoughtfully enlightening. We all had daily debriefings up to 11 pm or almost 12 am everyday, and had to visit the One-2-One main office on nearly a daily basis, but the efforts paid off with the staff, as we observed, very willing to learn the new technologies, while simultaneously providing active feedback to us about feature improvements that can be done in the near future.

 

       

DDX (top) and EMRS (below) in action

 

I took a lot of notes, as we have to prepare portfolios to summarize our trip, point out any suggestions made by the staff, and also make way for considerations towards future projects, but other than SIGHT-related memos, I also learn numerous things about Cambodia, and the people living within. Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough time to take a look outside the capital, Phnom Penh, but say the least, from the city, there are so many new things worth observing that I can talk about here. On the sections below, I will talk more about my personal observations about the country, but if you want to know more details about our trip, the information on the SIGHT website will be updated as soon as possible (sight.ust.hk). The first thing I want to talk about here is the stereotype of ‘disorder’. Hailing from a fellow Third-World country (in this case, Indonesia), I should be honest that nostalgic feelings always come to me whenever I step my feet in this beautiful city. When it comes to describing ‘beautiful’, I would rather not invoke any comparison between Phnom Penh and any place on Earth that you would believe as highly developed. The city, in and by itself, is still largely reminiscent of any major metropolis from developing world, whose economy seemingly ‘grows out of control’. Emerging skyline is one particular feature, as tower cranes are scattered randomly across corners of the city. Cars, motorcycles, and tuk-tuk do seemingly ‘overlook’ each other on intersections, but surprisingly, few collisions occur, even though they come in an extremely close direction. It is as though the whole scenery were a self-regulating chaos. It appears like ‘disorder’, but paradoxically, it is within this disorder that I can discover vague patterns of ‘order’. The city continues to grow, the country goes on its current progression. While for some people Cambodia reminds them of orphans, Khmer Rouge, and the stigmatization of ‘the poor that desperately needs outsiders’ hands’, this is largely false. Orphans are still there (and the exploitation still happens to some degree), but the whole scenery is not as bad as it seems to be. The whole country has an extremely young population, is in the ongoing process of learning, and certainly, it will not take a single swipe to create major changes here. People will continue to do mistakes, intentionally or not, but to say for now, Cambodia has had tremendous progress. The slums that we visited to conduct field testing are also not as deplorable as I personally could imagine. At least on the capital, even though many of the people live in squatter areas, they are at least well-fed. Non-governmental organizations actively provide free education and perform basic healthcare services for the communities, to fill up the absence of a comprehensive system in the city, and the country, in general. But, on average, there is a high sense of curiosity among the people, especially in regard to their desire to know more about what is happening outside the world. One of the One-2-One staff told me that the slum dwellers, when introduced to our EMRS system, were completely surprised to realize that such technology had actually existed before. They are mesmerized by the software features as well as the fingerprint scanners (even though there is concern about privacy by us, but not the Cambodians in general). The staff even said that the slum dwellers could not cease asking questions about the software.

 

DSC_1079

One of the slums where we conducted a field test for the software.

 

Anywhere in the world, there are always inspiring figures. The outliers who, with their talents and passions, seek to empower their communities and direct them into a better future. We have met many doctors, locally educated, trained, and very well-experienced, dedicating their time to provide free medical service for slum dwellers. We have also interacted with the nurses, either Cambodians or foreigners, who unswervingly put their efforts to assist the doctors and also the communities, by either performing blood tests, treating their wounds, or providing free, nutritious meals to the children.   Most extraordinarily, we also met one aspiring programmer, and a full-time medical staff in One-2-One, named Channat. Hailing from an impoverished rural area in a poor family background, he has set out his mind to look for a better life in Phnom Penh before the age of 10. Overcoming hardships in life, he toiled hard in pagoda by cleaning the dishes, at the same time earning some sums of money to go to school and study. There, he managed to become among the best students in his high school, goes to university, and becomes one of the most outstanding students in his class, again. He works in the organization from Monday to Friday, 8 am to 5 pm, before he continues his study in the university, 5.30-8.30 pm, does his homework for an hour, approximately, and reviews his lessons. In the spare time, Channat focuses on developing his passion: making computer programs. Despite the occupied schedule, he remains a down-to-earth, friendly, and soft-spoken communicator. Channat told him that back in his village, having heard his life story, people’s prior perception of education as a ‘privilege’ was suddenly altered. Their children started to go to schools, in the belief that someday, there would be more people like Channat, One-2-One medical staff, or all aspiring people they want to be in the future.

 

 

Channat (left) and fellow SIGHT members, Lance and Samson

 

But, most importantly, Cambodia is a country that wants to move forward, despite its devastating historical tragedy. As Dr. Annie Chen-Green, founder of One-2-One, eloquently summed up: “This country, back in 1960s, was once referred to as ‘Jewel of Southeast Asia’, even better than Singapore. When the Khmer Rouge came, almost the entire generation was wiped off. All the smart people, intellects, and promising thinkers all but languished and disappeared. It is only in the young people that Cambodia still has tremendous hopes to succeed, and make this place a jewel it once was, again.” Sometimes, to look forward the future, one has to see the trajectories from the past. And that is where our tour guides, while providing ‘history lectures’ throughout the trip, brought us into The Killing Fields and S-21 prison (formerly a high school). It was definitely a somber trip, and we couldn’t deny that reality. These were the places where some of the most atrocious mass crimes in human history took place. The Killing Field, or now known as Choeung Ek Genocide Museum, was only one of hundreds of mass-killing fields when Khmer Rouge was in power (1975-1979). Nobody knows for sure how many people died, but as a fixed fact, every family in Cambodia was deeply affected by this tragedy. Between 1.7 million and 3 million people were killed, starved to death, and infected by diseases throughout the ‘Dark Age’, before the Vietnamese occupied the country and deposed Khmer Rouge. Fact, for certain, is stranger than fiction. Totalitarian, brainwashing ideologies make it even worse and more absurd. But it is, ironically, the pressure of submission to authority that often results in a massive tragedy. When people lacked opportunities to education, the access to enlightenment, this was where ideologies, if not controlled, could spark into extremely dangerous minds. At least this is what we concurred after lengthy discussions with each other, back from the trip into these two places. I will not comment too much in this regard, but it is deeply sad for me to see when people are easily tricked into believing into something, while it is not necessarily in parallel to their original moral beliefs. It is not in the absence of morality that the worst atrocities happen; instead, it is when human beings’ moral values are, in coercion, bent to be adjusted to what the authority demands, no matter how strange they are. It is here, in The Killing Field and S-21, that we were told the worst atrocities that human beings can do beyond their limits. The atmosphere is particularly gloomy when we are inside S-21, now part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. Formerly a high school and gymnastic, it became Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison as 21,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed inside this school for over 4 years. Very few people survived this prison; the last 7 prisoners, out of the last 21, were freed by Vietnamese soldiers during the raids to Phnom Penh in early 1979. It is also here that we met one of the last living survivors of S-21, Mr. Chum Mey, now aged at 85. Once a mechanic, he is currently an author and painter, now selling his books and artworks – all the while describing the savagery taking place in the prison, paradoxically again, in a place he was once tortured and imprisoned.

 

DSC_1157   DSC_1158   DSC_1164     Buddhist monks pay respect to a pagoda housing thousands of skulls from the victims of Khmer Rouge in Choeung Ek killing field (top); former S-21 prison, once a high school (middle); posing with Mr. Chum Mey, one of the last survivors of the notorious prison (below)

 

No words from me can describe the tumults Mr. Chum Mey, and countless others, had endured in the dark years of Khmer Rouge. Still, I deeply appreciate him in recounting all the stories, as authored in his books, not only as a living historical lesson, but also as a testament to the younger generations, of what once happened, and what should not happen again in the future. Four tumultuous decades afterwards, Cambodia has eventually made strides again.

While still in need of long-term improvements, the country, for all its existing flaws, deserves some credits that it can make some progresses. Life has been largely restored in the country, and echoing what Dr. Annie says, hope is now placed in the younger generation, in the lifetime journey to make this country a better, and more dignified, place in the world. Having interacted with all the great persons within 9 days, all with big visions towards this country, I believe it is the time that Cambodia deserves a big spirit of optimism.

The age of moving out

lonely people

 

Source: rogerebert.com

 

People are moving out everywhere – in an unprecedentedly rapid pace, at least in my opinion. At least that’s what I have observed among my classmates; more than one-third of them, as far as I know, are studying overseas, be it Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong (I am) or at least, ending up either in the capital, Jakarta, or in Bandung. Ten years ago we hadn’t heard so much of people studying outside the country, with the exception of children from upper-middle-class families whose parents have enough financial incentives to do so. 2005 and 2015 are already two different worlds since then. With increasingly affordable scholarships, air tickets becoming much cheaper (thanks to low-cost flights), and global economy increasingly integrated, mobility of products, ideas, people, and capital has become more a necessity than it is an option. Indeed, in some places, mobility is a pressure, not a privilege. I can’t predict much how much different 2015 and 2025, or 10 years from now, will be, but one thing that I can assure, for a certainty, is that people, looking out for opportunities elsewhere, will not stop migrating outside their home countries.

Data from UN validates my opinion, at least. In 2005, almost 185 million people lived outside their home countries. Almost a decade later, by 2013, the number has swarmed to almost 250 million (including refugees), an increase of more than 30% alone. But, one must also caution with the data: it only includes figures of those officially submitted by each country’s respective immigration department into the global organization. We have no idea how many ‘illegal immigrants’ are there precisely, but if we include them altogether, the figure, suffice it to say, is more gargantuan than we can expect.

Indeed, this is an inevitable sign of our society’s global transition: globalization has changed much of the face of the world in a short time. Political borders do still exist (and will continue to exist far in the future), but economically, culturally, and socially, these borders have become more blurred, and much more fluid as an accommodation of inevitable changes. Referring again to Michio Kaku, one of the world’s most renown physicists, the world right now has achieved a Type 0.7 civilization (we will have to wait until next century to achieve a perfect Kardashev’s Type 1 civilization). These 250 million people live outside their home countries, are more likely to speak English to each other (a global language), and in fact, they build resilient economies. Developed world needs a continuous inflow of foreign talent and skills to sustain their economies while their population is rapidly aging, and developing world needs their remittances to ensure children can go to school and live healthily, families deserve better housing, and social status can improve.

Nonetheless, one challenging question appears: how much does migration change our perception towards our own identities?

There are a lot of implications. I only return to my hometown, Medan, once a year, but whenever I go back, I will stay in the place I have been born and raised in for almost 20 years of my life for 30-40 days. Huge gaps exist between me and the people of the city that I know. Before I studied overseas, I only embodied, in theory, about what the outside world will look like. Yes, there will be people across dozens of countries (some of which almost nobody knows about), and you have no idea about their cultures, their values, and everything about them considered ‘unknown unknowns’. Having studied here for two years, and another two sojourns back into my city, sometimes there is a feeling in me this is not really the city that I used to know. I can’t explain them vividly, but on the least, I can feel the discrepancies. Sometimes I even feel a difference of values between me and my parents – this is an inevitable consequence when you go out, and be exposed to new perspectives, and everything just changes.

As time goes by, nonetheless, one by one, my close friends are moving out as well. One of my close friends, Edward, has permanently settled down in the capital, Jakarta. I used to hang out with him very often during holidays, but sometimes, nobody can resist the force of change. It’s just not Edward himself; many of my high school friends, indeed, have also moved outside together with their families, and they no longer have any intention to resettle down in this city. As far as I can recall, it was of a big surprise when the city government, as quoted in a local newspaper, presented reports that our city’s population is actually declining – not increasing. Their main rationale was that many people had duplicates of ID cards, but I surmise migration could be one possible reason (though we must scientifically prove it through extensive research). Some of my close friends also obtain scholarships from Japanese government, and I have very little confidence that they will return to this hometown.

Moving out, as something we can’t deny, is an inherent trait in human beings. There wouldn’t be us had the first hominids not walked upon what was now Kenya 2 million years ago, exploring outside the continent, settling down, and acquiring new identities. Migration is not something new that only recently happens; it constantly takes place, whether willingly or by force, as political, economic, and social configurations continued to be altered by the forces of change, the self-organized criticalities. Globalization and technological revolutions, in and by themselves, are simply accelerating the entire process. But what about the question of identity? If we look at a bigger picture of the history of humankind, and into the social construction of our communities, isn’t identity itself a fluid concept? Don’t we actually realize that identity is shaped by forces, adjustable as the time goes by? Our ancestors are not originally from the same country as we used to stay. Science ‘confirmed’ that the first ancestors of human race originated from Africa, and there appeared a massive confluence of ethno-linguistic groups and races, separated across different continents over thousands of generations, only to re-encounter each other as human civilization began to enter the first historical age. Even most Australians and Americans today have only ‘recently’ settled down in the two countries in the last three to four centuries, while the indigenous Aborigines and Native Americans came from African shores and Siberian plains 300 or 400 centuries earlier.

When a person no longer feels connected to his or her society, though, there is no option but to leave, and seek a place elsewhere, sometimes for pursuing passions and opportunities largely unattainable back in the home countries, or simply the raison d’etre of ‘acceptance’. This is why identity is highly fluid; not everyone in the world always experiences the same connection to where they belong. It is not even, oftentimes, where they belong to, but over ‘what’ they belong to. This is the same question you can ask of currently one-quarter billion people living outside the contemporary sovereign states in this planet. And so might our parents, grandparents, or even our far ancestors when they first settled down in what they used to call as ‘lands of the unknown’.

Some people indeed migrate not because they really want to; they are, sadly speaking, ‘forced’ to, for the means of survival. How does it feel like abandoning a place that you have been tied with the most? Whenever you tune on to the news actively, there will always be numerous news about immigrants dying on their way to destination countries. Thousands of people, every day, coming from war-torn or desperately poor countries in Middle East and Africa, stake their lives at seas to reach Europe’s Mediterranean shores – to the point that they have only one goal in mind: Europe or die. Other thousands of people from Bangladesh and Myanmar are also staking their lives as well to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, or even as far away as Australia, and dozens have died at seas and mass graves operated by human smugglers. Or what about millions of laborers in Gulf countries, toiling hard to earn enough living for their families back in their homelands? Or other millions of housemaids, hired from countries as varying as Philippines to Indonesia to Bangladesh to Nigeria? Where do we all really belong to? In a situation of Hobson’s choice, there is no other option but to either maintain our own cultures, or embrace the new identities bit by bit. Remolding an identity is itself a social engineering challenge.

Some Hong Kong friends that I know once told me that they never ‘considered to live permanently in this city’. Life pressure, as most frequently cited, is one reason to leave. This was what I observe when I had a lunch with a fellow friend, named Tony, in an Indonesian restaurant in Causeway Bay.

“I love this city, I have a strong connection with this city, but with all the pressures and challenges that are becoming increasingly harsher in Hong Kong, sometimes I question myself if this is actually my home.”

Indeed, this is not only the voice of one person. Many of them that I know are considering to leave as well. I have no precise idea how high it is, but surveys conducted by several universities here found out that 20-25% of Hong Kong’s population, if given enough opportunities, would eventually ‘choose to emigrate somewhere else’.

Tony majors in chemical engineering, with a specialization in biochemistry. I admire him for being a hardworking and diligent person, as we were once in a group project together. At the same time, he’s also unflinchingly honest, very greatly outspoken, and is very well-informed with recent affairs across the city.

He points out one reason why he has this consideration in mind of leaving Hong Kong.

“People are too obsessed with the values of money. Some close friends of mine, I know them really well, are so talented in science. They have these deep passions in research, in inventing something new, and I believe if they were admitted in any great place outside here, they would be scientists that could change the world. But you know what? They ended up majoring in business or in finance, something that is definitely not their passions. I’m so upset why they chose something that is not definitely their callings. It’s just sad.”

He’s thinking of Germany, but Japan sticks much closer to his mind.

Tony is not alone. Many of them that I know will either think of working in Britain, Australia, Canada, US, or new favored places such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or to an even lesser extent, Southeast Asia (aside of Singapore). And it is even more interesting when you look at their backgrounds. Some have ancestors coming from India, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, or even places as far away as Israel and Mauritius. Time and again, this is an obvious proof that identity is not strictly a form by itself; it is malleable, and it can be shaped depending on the subjects.

Even though I am a full-blooded ethnic Chinese, I would be more comfortable calling myself an Indonesian. As the prior three generations preceding me have settled down in this country before, I am more used to Indonesian customs (or I should say ‘Chinese-Indonesian culture’) than I am towards the native Chinese culture. Despite decades of political and historical tumults on Chinese communities a few decades ago, which inevitably also impacted my family, there’s no option but to choose one. I can’t go back to China as I don’t speak the same language with them. While not necessarily Chinese, the language I mean here is one of commonalities. My family has been here for four generations, and what else can be similar other than the physical presence? I don’t know if I will ever return and settle again in Indonesia, but most likely, in the long term, I will choose to move somewhere else, look for more opportunities to suit my passions, and explore any possible futures for myself.

I still love my country, but for my own sake, I would rather be more pragmatic. It’s both a big, and small, world, after all.

 

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.