Why poverty occurs

poor-people

When I was small, I was frequently told by my parents to persevere, work hard, and not to be indolent. From the car windows, we often saw young folks in a range of ages – I guess between 5 and 20 – playing guitars on the street side or begging for money. Their bodies were covered in dirt, oftentimes with torn-down clothes, and messy hair. Sometimes, there would be old ladies or men, slowly knocking on the car windows when traffic happened, asking for some pity. Some displayed physical deformities, such as cataract-affected eyes, amputated limbs, or tumors with the size of a human face. “You often have this strong feeling that you want to help them, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than to be sorry,” that is the near-typical expression my parents told me. “When you help a person, their friends will follow suit. And we are also not legally allowed to hand in cash for beggars or street urchins. But where the heck is the government?”

Afterwards, they quipped this familiar line. “That’s why you need to work really hard so that you have a better future.”

And that is also where we build this familiar, generalized adage of correlating people being poor with people being lazy, or ‘not being hardworking enough’. The reality, however, is far more complicating and incomprehensible than the pattern appears on the surface.

I was forever grateful for my family – especially my parents – that my family was able to support my overseas education, and that I was able to study in HKUST, one of the world’s youngest and fastest-rising research universities. And truth be told, if you happen to study in Hong Kong, it is also one of the ‘best’ places in the world not only to learn business, finance, or investment banking, but also to study about poverty. Not studying about poverty as a university major or degree of specialization, but rather to allow us to compare and contrast the unprecedented wealth and income gaps in one of the world’s most globalized cities.

I participated in several community service activities organized by a university-led outreach program throughout Hong Kong, and there, I began to experience – and learn more – about the more ‘sophisticated’ picture of the reality of poverty. If what you perceive of Hong Kong is mostly about its glitzy skyscrapers, you have only seen ‘one-half’ of the reality; you need to come across its numerous dilapidated multi-storey buildings, mostly spread around Kowloon, in order to get the other half of the reality. Inside the buildings, the alleys separating the flats are extremely shallow that you can hardly switch over your body. For a space the size of my own bedroom (back in my hometown), I think there may be like 5-6 ultra-small flats within that ‘alley’.

To make matters worse, there are other ‘quirks’ that epitomize poverty in this city. Many people, mostly elders, live in cages, due to ‘exorbitant housing rents’. There are also people who live in very compressed conclaves between two storeys of a building, to the extent that they can no longer stand, but need to crawl in within these spaces. And I can tell you that they are not lazy, either; these people, aged in 60s, 70s, or even 80s, still continue to eke out a living – an uneasy living – by picking up cardboards across the streets, and selling them to any hawkers for a tiny amount of money. Sometimes, they work for like more than 10 hours a day in restaurants and cafes, serving dishes and/or cleaning tables. Others stand for hours in certain stations to hand out pamphlets or advertising newsletters to any passersby. I once observed an old lady – perhaps already in a mentally ill state – getting in an altercation with a shopping mall security guard because of her pamphlet-distributing activity that is considered ‘annoying’. She murmured to herself in an angry tone while handing out these papers, to the ignorance of the passersby.

It’s not only about the old people. There are also young folks who are already working for hours a day, all the while doing menial tasks. Cleaning up tables in campus restaurants, removing food trays, or mopping the floors. And these people are definitely not lazy, just to keep this thought in mind.

Gradually, there came this awareness that people are poor not necessarily because they are lazy. That’s why it matters to look at the wider circumstances that facilitate such condition. If our parents are themselves poor, there is also a certain degree of likelihood that we will be in the same condition, and inherit it to our children and beyond. That is where the dichotomy comes in: we must work hard to lift ourselves from this evil cycle. But again, the outcomes can be mixed: some of them manage to have their offspring lifting the families out of poverty through education and skills, but others remain in the cycle, or even become economically worse off.

Consider two families of janitors. Just because their occupation is to clean out toilets does not mean we can easily dismiss their potential, especially their dignity. Suppose one family works really hard to provide adequate support for their children’s education; it is possible for them to support these children to finish high school, it is also possible their children can get scholarships to study in some of the best institutions to complete a bachelor’s degree, and it is even possible that they can complete a PhD degree. At the same time, the other family also works similarly really hard, but their children dropped out of high school, and given their inadequate educational backgrounds, end up working in a similar occupation as their parents do.

There are many possible answers on why the outcomes diverge for these two families. It can be mindset. Their parents may frequently tell the children how important education is, and why hard work and achievement matters, but they can also tell the children to ‘forget education, your stomach matters more’. It can be the neighborhoods they are in as well. There may be schools or educational institutions near their vicinity that offer subsidized education and renewable merit-based scholarships, with fully motivated teachers and educators doing their best to educate these guys. But there can also be a neighborhood ridden with crimes, infested with drug abuse, suffering from dilapidated, under-funded schools, obesity, or deadly gang fights. It can also be generational. The similar neighborhood their children live in is no different from the setting where their parents used to live. It can also be due to government policies. There are governments that favor free education and free healthcare because their tenet is social justice, so their families would be pretty much already ‘covered’ under its social security framework. There are also authorities that fully believe in laissez-faire principles, ‘to each one’s own’; your social status is defined by your own making. There are also regimes whose only task is to win the next election by handing out cash and other favored packages to their constituencies. You don’t call it social security; it’s clientelism. It can also be due to countries’ level of socio-economic development. The chronicle of this janitor families changed because the country shifted from a Third World country to a high-income economy. And don’t forget other ‘empirically unexplainable factors’. You can call it luck, bad luck, or if you don’t believe in any of these, simply refer to them as random events, absurdities, what have you.

Let us term them ‘unexpected circumstances’. It could be possible that one of the family members suffers from a terminal illness, and it takes a huge amount of money for its medical treatment. Or that the company the parents are employed in needs to lay off some people, including the parents themselves. Or it can be that an accident befalls to one of the family members, forcing them to forfeit their savings for education to pay for the medical costs. Or that either one of the breadwinners or the other family members is either seriously incapacitated or killed in a gang fight, a robbery, or an attempted murder. Or that a systemic economic or financial crisis takes place and the family lost their savings value. Or that another party wins election and promises to roll back every social security measure to ‘ensure a healthy fiscal setting’. Or that the social security benefits are taken away by other already-middle-class families. Or because of automation. Or that the children struggle to find jobs despite their high school or educational backgrounds. And it could also be possible that the family either never encounters or never becomes seriously affected by any of such calamities.

The reality becomes even more difficult to accept when one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Using years of research output and armed with arsenals of statistical figures, Piketty showed that since early 1970s, most of the world – particularly the Western world – has witnessed a U-shaped growth in inequality (instead of the inverted-U theorem as argued by Simon Kuznets), due largely to globalization, outsourcing of jobs to less developed countries, and more recently, disruptive technologies and artificial intelligence. He argued that in the last 40 years, the growth of capital income has surpassed that of labor income; the larger the capital-labor income gap is, the more unequal a society will be in the future.

How do we define capital income? It can be gains made through productivity improvement when companies invest in sophisticated machines that produce more and better. It can also be gains invested from our parents’ inherited wealth. It can also be home prices. It can also be universities’ endowments. What about labor income? It’s the salaries that we receive from the occupations we are doing. And whether you feel your aggregate labor income is growing or stagnating may depend on the location where you live. As shown by economist Branko Milanovic, the biggest ‘winners’ of globalization in the last three decades are middle class in emerging markets (led by China) and the elites in Western world, while the biggest ‘losers’ are the poorest people living in poor and developing countries, as well as the middle class in the Western world.

It becomes even more confusing when we look into two totally different things: poverty continues to decline, yet inequality continues to increase worldwide. The number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 1.8 billion in early 2000 to now around 800 million as of 2015, but the wealth concentration among the top 1% of the world’s population has surpassed 51% of the global wealth in the same period. Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, in his book The Great Escape (released in the same year as Piketty’s book), argued that the reasoning may be that while many people escape poverty through expanded access to education, healthcare, and other public services, they are still struggling to enter into the middle class. That said, the poverty-reduction effort is a success, but that success is built on a fragile foundation. This may mean that should anything occur, and should these people be ‘unprepared’ of its repercussions, they may either fall back into poverty, or remain trapped in the low-income-but-not-poor-cycle for a very long time.

That said, the reality of poverty is more difficult to understand than normally assumed. I will not take much of the explanation here into direct conclusion, as more research needs to be worked out to better understand its peculiar nature. Still, I think policymakers need to embark on policy innovation, as the world today is dramatically different from the world in the past. Lastly, the ages-old recipe of ‘job creation’ (as politicians like to promise) or ‘poverty eradication’ (as these UN aficionados and/or bravados like to voice out) has sounded so hollow with the complicating realities of today, that we all need to silence ourselves and reconfigure the definition of this concept, one that we think is as simple as street urchins or beggars asking for money on the street side.

A farewell to 2016, and welcoming an uncertain future

welcoming-2017

 

A close friend of mine posted on our Whatsapp chat group that our ‘366 days’ are finally closing today. He specifically referred to ‘366 days’, because of all days in this year, there is one special day in which his birthday befalls: February 29. With officially his age being ‘5 years old’ (he’s actually 20, de facto), he will need to wait until 2020 to celebrate his 6th birthday, or by the time when he’s already 24 years old.

To some extent, I quite pitied him given his unusual birth date. But it’s okay; one great thing I will remember is the friendship that we have long forged, together with the rest of the chat group members, for quite some time. As I am currently on my final year of study at HKUST, this may probably be the first – and the last – time I can directly celebrate his birthday. Again, it’s okay; his once-in-four-years birthday will forever be remembered.

My friend’s ‘birthday story’ is not the primary theme for this post; you can call it an ‘opening anecdote’.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Compared to previous years, this is also the time when I made the least number of posts. In 2015, I published 21 blog posts, already a massively huge drop compared to 2014 (when I posted, I guess, over 300 blog posts). This year, it is only 15 (including this one). The number of viewers has also dropped in the last two years, which I think is quite expected given the reduced time I have spent curating this WordPress blog. But it’s okay; I don’t care if the total number of this 5.5-year-old blog is comparatively lower than those on a typical Youtube video, because I am not seeking publicity. The aim of this blog is very simple: to share my thoughts, and nothing else. My commitment is that as long as I am still alive, I will continue updating this blog, all the while sharing my thoughts about issues which I think – and believe – are worth seriously addressing.

If I could sum up how 2016 has been for me, I can say that it, in some way, sucks. My sentiment may be a bit different compared to how others denigrated the year of 2016; I didn’t really blame ‘2016’ itself in causing problems (because problems can always occur regardless what year it is), but rather how some ‘misfortunes’ happen somewhat more frequently compared to previous years. And it’s particularly personal. To begin with, I did not manage to get any single Dean’s List awards this year, which are actually important in determining my scholarship amount. There have also been excessive bureaucratic logjams with regard to salary processing of my research internship. A huge rise in expenditures as I am applying for PhD and Master’s programs (to tell you the fact, a normal PhD application fee, in case for a US school, can cost between US$75 and US$125). My application for a research trip to Zambia was also rejected for ‘quite unclear reasons’. Anxiety related to finding jobs, especially when I remember the tremendous amount of ‘investment’ already incurred by my family in paying for my tuition, in addition to my own scholarships. There is also a similar anxiety about my younger brother, as he is currently waiting for the news from any universities he has been applying for (including the school I am currently enrolled in).

Returning back to my friend’s ‘birthday’ story, the anxiety is cyclical, this time perhaps with a larger scope in mind. Perhaps I can call it a ‘once-in-a-few-years’ cycle of anxiety. Back in 2009-2010 period, the primary ‘worry’ was about getting selected for a high school scholarship in Singapore. Then in 2012-2013 period, the major anxiety was about me in choosing universities. Now, in 2016, and later in 2017, the major worries will be about which schools my younger brother will be in, whether I will be accepted for PhD or Master’s programs, or whether I end up taking a job. As I am hoping to pursue further studies in the United States, there have been serious discussions with my parents. My mom is more supportive of me than my dad does in this regard; my dad has been truly ‘scared’ by a Donald Trump presidency, half-jokingly and half-not-jokingly.

Perhaps this is the reason I can say why this last winter vacation for me as an undergraduate student feels so different compared to previous vacations. Most of my friends and I didn’t worry too much about looking for jobs, finishing final-year projects, or waiting for confirmation about postgraduate application. All we cared about was simply about having a nice time during vacation. And this is particularly strongly felt for me, personally. I only return to my hometown once in a year as I make every summer in the last three years occupied with research-related jobs or courses. And this time, the vacation feels different; it’s hard for me to describe it, and you will understand that kind of moment of uncertainty when you start to ponder into the future, especially with only one remaining semester left.

That’s why I feel particularly anxious; from 2017 onward, both my younger brother and I will most likely have spent most of our time studying, or working, overseas. All the while he’s applying for scholarships, my parents will still need to continue supporting his education. And with them expected to continue working, there may be even less time for us to frequently interact with each other. It is inevitable, oftentimes, that it takes some sacrifices to achieve something. Obviously, life in 2017 will be vastly different from in this year.

That said, all I can do in the last day of 2016 is to bid farewell to this year, and learn from these experiences. It’s true that some setbacks have occurred, but again, let bygones be bygones. We may choose to be defensive and ‘victimize’ ourselves in the face of these misfortunes and become overly reactionary; indeed, some emotional expression may be quite necessary. But, we can also choose to ‘let go’, learn from our mistakes, and continue to persevere. Again, as I always repeatedly tried to reassure myself, it is not always the ‘years’ themselves that choose the calamities. There may be such cyclical-like patterns, but we may opt not to let them defeat our spirits. Come 2017, the time for another life transition, and as much different – and difficult – it is as the life transition in 2013 was (previously from high school to overseas university education, now from university to either a postgraduate study or employment), that persevering spirit matters a lot. I have still yet to bring ‘the best’ in me and to my family, and that has always been the mantra I stick in to my mind whenever that moment begins to tick into my mindset.

And here is my message for my juniors who are still yet to graduate: if you are in for your winter vacation, enjoy it to the fullest. When it comes to this pre-transition moment, you will begin to deeply appreciate how meaningful every time you spend with your beloved ones is. The current era is vastly different from previous ones, as there are now an almost endless array of high-tech wonders that make our lives easier, but still, none of them can replace the values of direct, face-to-face interaction, especially with close friends and family members. If you agree with me that 2016 sucks, let’s bid it – say the least – an honorable farewell (you don’t have to follow in John Oliver’s way of saying goodbye to 2016). Welcoming 2017, we will expect riddles, mysteries, tragedies, and other unexpected shocks. But, let’s also anticipate any unexpected virtues or moments of ‘luck’, because after all, these are the dual characteristics of our human nature.

Goodbye, 2016. I will promise to keep you updated with future blog posts next year. Happy new year in advance!

Saving democracy from democracy itself

democracy-under-test

First and foremost, I hope that everyone reading this post enjoy a merry Christmas (or, if you are not a Christian, at least a good holiday). I am sure that 2016 has been a tough, strange, sad, and maddening year, given the occurrences of many ‘weird’ events throughout this year. As we are welcoming 2017, which is only a few days ahead of now, it may be worthwhile to spend a little bit time to reflect stuff that has occurred in the last 12 months.

There is one inconvenient condition, at the least, that we must all acknowledge on the first hand: democracy is not working well. I do not know to which extent you deeply support the notion of democracy or its ideals, and I do not even know if you support its very essence at all, but the first precondition that we must be aware is that there is something wrong with how we implement democracy across the world.

We even need to start asking ourselves: how do we actually define a democracy? If we think democracy is no more than voting, protesting, and changing governments, then something is wrong with our conceptual framework about this idea. Even China, all that we know as a one-party authoritarian state, regularly holds direct elections (although constrained on the village level) and experienced almost 100,000 protests in 2015, although the nature of these protests was mostly about grievances against local governments. Is it a sign of democratization? Assuming ceteris paribus, I do not see its democratizing prospects in the long run, given that majority of the middle class in China still support the Communist Party regime.

That’s the case for China. Then we have the populist-wave phenomenon in the Western world. People in this hemisphere have experienced the refugee crisis, suffered from terrorist attacks, seen worsening inequalities, and undergone stagnant income gains with sluggish economic growth rates. We’ve seen the impacts of ‘Brexit’ (even though the real Brexit has not really taken place), and the biggest amplifier of all, the fact that we will see Donald Trump (and all the brouhaha that we have known) becoming the 45th President of the United States.

Perhaps the world is preoccupied with the Brexit and Donald Trump phenomenon, but do not get entrapped in such common knowledge bias: the quality of democracy is in decline worldwide. Stanford-based political scientist Larry Diamond, in his January 2015 research paper, has highlighted that since 2005 onward, the growth of democracies has stagnated, and even slightly declined. Looking at the current context, we’ve seen quite a number of these illustrations. The increasing centralization of power in Turkey under Erdogan. Putin’s continued dominance in Russian politics, despite economic crisis and stagnation. The victory and ongoing rule of hard-line populist parties in Poland and Hungary. Excluding 25 other cases that Diamond listed in his paper.

Remember one thing in the first place, though: they gain power not through illegitimate means, but through elections, many of which are actually competitive.

I am not saying that democracy is going to collapse anytime soon; indeed, both Larry Diamond and Dan Slater (another renown political scientist based in University of Chicago) concurred that democracy will stay in the long run. Rather, what they (and also I) worry is that certain political forces may hijack the very purpose of democracy for their own advantages. That, I argue, may lead to the subsequent decline in the quality of the democracy itself. After all, differentiate the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’; the former relates to what ideas are best accepted by the majority in a polity, while the latter relates to the checks and balances of the former. The current tendency, nevertheless, is that democracy has been so seriously misused that we all begin to see the unexpected – and oftentimes unwanted – consequences: clientelism, political corruption, populism, demagoguery, tyranny of the majority, polarization, and ‘manipulation of the game’; or, to put it in layman’s term, the fact that any alternating government will not be able to change the existing flaws in the political system.

This is not to say that other alternatives are necessarily better than democracy; Przeworski et al., in a signature 2000 paper, has argued that economic development bears little (or even no) correlation with a country’s political status as either a dictatorship or a democracy. That said, it does not matter whether a country is still ruled by an authoritarian regime or has already democratized; as long as the government can deliver outcomes as promised to the people, there should be a degree of stability. What I am saying here, in this regard, is for us to experience ‘a rude awakening’ of the current flaws in the implementation of democracy.

Here are some personal suggestions that I can think of in how we can save the benefits promised by democracy from its debilitating disadvantages, especially as we are welcoming 2017:

First and foremost, acknowledge that democracy does not make us ‘live in paradise’.

Our ‘obligation’ to preserve democracy has been largely ceremonial and superficial: we go to voting booths to vote for candidates, and end of story. I don’t care whether you have ever voted or not, but I get the feeling when people express their dissatisfaction and voice that ‘whoever becomes elected, nothing has ever changed’. Presidents or prime ministers come and go, but some problems are becoming worse. In the 2016 US election alone, over 100 million eligible voters did not cast their support to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (let alone Gary Johnson or Jill Stein). I may understand the prevailing sentiment among these people about these candidates, and acknowledging that, on the first place, is a first step to deconstruct our thought processes about the notion of democracy.

Second, when you are presented with contradictory arguments, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they are, ‘do not hide in safe spaces’.

Many of us may find the statement ‘politically correct’ allergic. And sometimes, I personally feel that, too. Nonetheless, most of our time, we have been raised in a way that we can only voice out issues that conform to the ‘politically correct’ notion. Any slight deviation from the general consensus will be immediately ‘shut down’ by tirades of ‘political correctness’, and sometimes with credible threats of coercion. What’s the consequence? We refuse to listen to ‘inconvenient truths’, preferring ourselves to stay within our own comfort zones that we have been so deeply imbued with. I don’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or simply ‘an ordinary guy’, but if we, even at the very first place, have begun to censor our mindsets with filters of certain notions or perceptions associated with ‘the other party’, we end up labeling the other side into a monolith. Liberals shutting down the conservatives, conservatives shutting down the liberals, etc. Bubbles proliferate, and when they explode, the outcomes can be fatal. Civil conflicts, riots, uncompromising polarization, winner-takes-all attitude, or even mass casualties, all these outcomes are possible. Why don’t we all minimize our ego and start listening? Not that their ideas may be entirely correct, but at least, we may find a certain degree of ‘virtues’ in their arguments. Unfortunately, this second step may be the most difficult thing to do (given our prevailing dogma, stereotyping, and other biases within our mindsets).

Third, educate ourselves about civic rights. And as long as you have enough resources, do something.

I am sure that most of us have, at least, been engaged in a certain community-themed action, no matter how small it is. Be it visiting elderly people, providing free food for poor or homeless people or refugees, or volunteering for an NGO or a religious or social movement, such actions can already be considered as ‘breeding grounds’ for us to learn more about issues related to our society. We do good things not only to wish ourselves ending up in heaven, or to win more business contracts for our enterprises because of good publicity (ironically, that’s what CSR is all about), but also to understand in further depth about the roots of these problems. Why there are such communities that they may need our assistance. Understanding their issues, listening to their perspectives, and fully discerning their hardships may be another step to make us more aware about the concept of civil society.

Most importantly, if you are parents (I am still a 21-year-old guy, by the way), and your children are still young, educate them about the importance of civil society. Get them involved about these issues. You may disagree with me to a certain extent, but I do believe that the earlier we are exposed to these problems, the more we become aware of what we can contribute to solve these problems.

Fourth, compromise, no matter how unpopular it is.

Compromise often sounds dirty, or something like a C-word. But, again, be aware of the existing reality: society is a set of constantly competing interests, ideas, power, and forces. There are a lot of diverse groups from ethnic, racial, social, economic, religious, and various other defining features. It is correct that we strive to advocate our ideas, and sometimes we may have to compete with others, but when these become winner-takes-all struggles, it poses a danger to our long-term democratic values. After all, one feature of democracy is that it is raucous, noisy, and oftentimes chaotic. However, in the end, still, we must come to the realization that some of our interests do not always overlap with the others, but we can not overlook them, either. They are still part of our society. In the end, there are some painful compromises we must make. I do not ask for us to completely give up our rights, but to trade some issues of ‘minor’ importance, which may be of major importance for the other. This does not sound popular at all, but that is why I ask all of us to make such sacrifices, occasionally.

Fifth, and lastly, remain critical of our surrounding environment.

This may be difficult to apply in certain hybrid or authoritarian regimes, but after all, dissenters still exist everywhere. When we vote somebody to a public office, we entrust him or her with a significant degree of trust that the leader will do something. That we will hold our support toward them accountable. That is why, no matter what policies the leaders do, do not stop being critical. Write our thoughts, ideas, and feedback about certain policies in a civic and restrained manner (especially if you live in a country that does not seem too much like a democracy). If you are afraid to do so with the central or federal government, at least start from the localities we live in. Do not hesitate to criticize when there are things worth raising for.

I do not guarantee whether all these five suggestions are applicable, but if you believe that democracy is the least bad form of political system (as I personally also do), I still believe that these ideas are worth for consideration. Particularly in the age of social media – and the massive flurry of deliberate misinformation or ‘fake news’ – never before has it become so imperative for us to maintain our critical-thinking skills. I choose to believe that this matters, not only for this generation, but for future generations to come.

Additional readings:

 

Is Democracy In Decline? Published by Georgetown University.

Papers citing Larry Diamond’s paper, as listed in Google Scholar link here.

Reality check: a Donald Trump presidency

random-trump-drawing

I even doubt if the Donald Trump character that I drew here had, if any, any bits or pieces that look like Donald Trump at all.

The reality is, prepared or not, like it or not, there are strong odds that Donald Trump – everything you associate with The Apprentice, ugly oranges, strange hair, tweets that look like one generated by a bot, and all his dangerous wordings and thinking – can become the leader of the most influential global power, or the so-called ‘Free World’, within less than 3 days. It’s never been this close, it’s never been this unbelievable, and it’s never been this ridiculous. Even his pussy-gate, which had led many people to believe that he is finished even before the electoral race commences after the Access Hollywood leaks about his lewd conversation with Billy Bush, does not dampen the support from his electoral base in a long run.

Nate Silver (statistician, data journalist, founder of FiveThirtyEight) upped the odds of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton from previously the 13% to 18% range to now over 35%. The ‘firewall states’ – so sacrosanct for Clinton’s electoral-college attainment that they appear almost impenetrable – now began to look vulnerable. All of a sudden, the prospect of a guy that appeared more like a 3-year-old toddler dressed in a 70-year-old costume leading the world’s largest economy, most outspent armed forces, and biggest nuclear arsenal is looking more like a possible reality. You thought this looked like an AI-scripted plot gone badly awry, but welcome to the reality. And soon, pretty likely, we will have a presidential version of The Apprentice, this time just much scarier. So much so that Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has considered a Trump presidency as one of ‘major global risks’.

Prediction is a horrible job, because indeed, nobody really knows what will actually happen in the future. Nate Silver may try out his best using statistical analysis and polling aggregation, but even this is prone to measurement errors, this time simply because there are so many third-party and ‘undecided’ voters who can produce massive swings, either in favor of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. For now, it is obvious that Clinton has more paths to secure at least 270 electoral colleges (out of 538), but so much stuff can happen within the next 3 days that any scenarios, regardless how insane and crazy they are (just like Trump’s candidacy itself), can actually occur.

In this blog post, I will do that horrible job, and I caution that much of the assertion may remain false, all using the current degree of knowledge that I know about Trump’s words, statements, and ideas. Watching all the three presidential debates may make you question whether you are watching a celebrity gossip battle or a high school bully taunting the ‘good one’ on class monitor selection, but I will try to use some of the ideas that he uttered, compare them with the reality, as well as how he relates with the Republican Party in general. Truth be told, he has had a very uneasy, love-hate relationship with GOP, and this may significantly impact his presidency (if he wins).

Here we begin:

Immigration

The ‘I’ word now looks more like a derogatory term thanks to his bombastic rhetoric about, well, immigration. Looking at the way he perceives of Mexicans and Muslims, there is a strong likelihood that a Trump administration’s immigration policy will be extremely tough, especially on people originating from either Latin America or Muslim-majority countries. Deportation of illegal immigrants will be commonplace, considering that the United States has more than 12 million unregistered ‘aliens’. There is also a strong likelihood that he will stop receiving Syrian refugees (while the top three countries of origin of refugees in the US are from Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia), but the likelihood that he will stop all refugee flows coming to the country is very small. Nonetheless, immigration flows to the US, by and large, will remain largely unaffected, given that the country remains competitive in terms of attracting talents from all across the globe. However, one caveat is that a Trump administration will strictly tighten visa and immigration requirements for people coming to either visit, study, or reside in the country for quite some time, which can have a dampening economic effect.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Economy

A Trump administration is likely to go huge on investment in infrastructure as a ‘massive stimulus package’, which it promises to be between US$500 billion and US$1 trillion. Construction-related industries will likely to see a boom, should his plan be realized. The problem, nevertheless, is that he will go into conflict with his fellow Republicans in the Congress (if he considers himself so) because of the latter’s belief in ‘small government’. This, I predict, will be a significant point of contention between President Trump and Congressional Republicans.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: high

But, his proposed tax cuts will be largely favored by many businesses, although the consequence would be to deepen current account deficit that US has been faced with for a very long time. The previous Obama administration has managed to reduce the deficit from a record of US$1.4 trillion in 2009 to US$0.4 trillion in 2016 fiscal year, but even such accord can be at stake when his tax cuts are enacted. With mounting debts (over US$20 trillion) and multiple postponements on debt ceiling, plus his infrastructure stimulus plan, a Trump administration will have two options: go for the rational option (that is to borrow more from either China, Japan, or Middle Eastern oil-rich countries), or go nuts (manage the economy like Trump did to many of his defaulted businesses). Even if he opts the latter path, the question is now whether he can affect – let alone coerce – the Federal Reserve to implement his policy ideas of doing ‘massive haircuts’ for US dollar. If that happens, United States is officially a banana republic, and the entire global economy will go bananas too.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Here comes the free trade. Trump has repeatedly stated that he vows to withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to end US membership in World Trade Organization (WTO – which US ironically was the founder itself), and to impose 45% import tariffs on Chinese products, as well as to tear the entire NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico. This comes, all in all, when so many of Trump’s signature products are actually manufactured from overseas. Still, even we are supposedly not surprised to hear statements like these. This is the era of globalization, and any single product you purchase can have different parts assembled in different countries. But with the politics going extremely toxic on globalization and trade, we all hear cries of protectionism being voiced out.

I predict what happens next is otherwise. A Trump administration is likely to massively expand United States free trade agenda, because either Trump thinks on almost anything as a businessperson, that when there is something that can be traded, then there’s a chance you can strike a deal, or because there would be intensely huge pressure from the US Chamber of Commerce and other business associations that can lobby and influence the Congress, so much so that Trump is forced to make a compromise. Whether it will be bilateral free trade agreements, it remains to be seen. Regarding TPP, and to a lesser extent, TTIP, it is quite likely that President Trump will force all the participating countries to return to negotiation tables to extract further concessions regarding the issue of currency manipulation (when almost every country does it), although many leaders in TPP countries have repeatedly stated that there will be ‘no more rooms for further negotiation’ (by the way, the trade deal was signed in New Zealand in February this year). There is a quite limited chance TPP will be passed, given the bars set by the administration will be extremely difficult to accomplish, and negotiations can even end up in collapse.

Warning: the odds of a global recession also increase significantly given the massive deficits and/or significant debt accumulation resulting from his policies, and the biggest victims would be the middle and working classes.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50:50

Great Wall 2.0

His idea of ‘building borders’ will be highly unlikely to materialize; the fact is, much of the US-Mexican border currently has been sealed with wired fences and literal border walls, with frequent patrols by border guards, and to some extent, even drone surveillance. Trump administration will face increasing pressure from Native American reservation groups, environmentalists, as well as Hispanic communities. It is also quite likely that any of these social movements can start a long-term occupation of any portions of the border in order to resist his government, and the response is potentially brutal (as you can see with the militarization of police and their responses on Dakota Access pipeline protests).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: 50: 50

Supreme Court

I am almost certain that with the Republicans expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives (and quite possibly the Senate as well), both President Trump and the Congress will appoint right-wing justices into the Supreme Court. Many issues, such as same-sex marriage, Citizens United, and especially abortion, will see their progress being put at stake. There is even the possibility of shrinking the Supreme Court (as of now, there are 9 justices, but with the death of Antonin Scalia early this year, the existing number is 8, so many issues remain tied).

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Climate Change

There are two possible scenarios, both good and bad, occurring in Donald Trump administration. If his tax cut plans are applied to all sectors (assume ceteris paribus), there is a possible boom in renewable energy industries, probably because he simply does not care too much about it. On the other hand, there is also a quite big likelihood that he will reduce spending on environment-related agencies, or possibly defund them, or even disband them. Agencies like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely to see their responsibilities and authority largely reduced. Fracking practices, especially in natural gas, will remain in place, and quite likely expand should the tax cuts be applied to oil and gas-related industries altogether.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Science & Technology

Trump administration will likely make a compromise on H1B visa, or what Michio Kaku called as ‘genius visa’, which allows talented individuals all around the world to live for a certain period of time working in the United States. It is quite possible that a lot of the efforts will be put in developing the country’s space industry, mostly by working with the existing private space exploration companies, such as SpaceX. Development in science and technology will remain largely unaffected, except that much of the focus will still go on defense-related areas.

Chances of clash with the Congress on this issue: low

Foreign Policy

Here comes the longest part. To make long short, I’ll just outline them, one issue per each paragraph, below.

Russia: President Trump will likely align closely with Vladimir Putin (BFFs?)

NATO: The structure of the defense organization will remain in place, but with Trump cozying up to Putin, NATO will increasingly look like a ‘paper tiger’. Almost no attention will be paid on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Syria: President Trump may possibly end support on moderate rebel forces operating in the war-torn country, and shift their focus to indirectly support Bashar al-Assad, instead, with the major aim of ‘wiping out ISIS’

Iraq: He may not really ‘take the oil’, but Iraq may align itself more closely with either China (thanks to One Belt One Road initiative, in which Iraq is listed as part of it) or Russia (for weapons)

Afghanistan: There remains uncertainty whether Trump administration will retain American forces in the country, but if they do, the country will increasingly bandwagon to China to help stabilizing the country

Nuclear weapons: Although Trump once repeatedly asked ‘why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’, as long as he cozies up to Putin, the strange ‘equilibrium’ should remain in place

Saudi Arabia: With United States-Saudi Arabia relations already severely strained under Obama administration (Iran nuclear deal, 9/11 bill, threats of selling off US$750 billion in American assets), and President Trump increasingly reluctant to protect the country, it is highly likely the country will build its own nuclear bombs, especially to anticipate the expiry of the Iran nuclear deal

Iran: If Trump abrogates the nuclear deal, tensions will significantly increase in Middle East, and Russia may possibly oppose US move (but Saudi Arabia will be quite happy to hear about it)

China: The country may receive a huge boost with a Trump presidency, given that his campaign rhetoric regarding China, so far, is mostly about economy. He did not raise questions about Taiwan, human rights, Tibet, or Xinjiang, and pretty likely he will never raise any of them. Indeed, with the administration significantly reducing their leadership roles in international order, China, as the world’s second largest economy, will fill out the vacuum. Many neighboring countries will have to reluctantly bandwagon with China, given their current dilemma of having China as the largest trading partners, but in critical necessity of US to provide them security assurances

US alliance in Asia: Obviously, the decades-old US alliance system in Asia will be at stake. Countries that may worry the most are Japan and South Korea, which have relied on American nuclear umbrella to ensure their survival in the last six decades. With Trump administration reducing their commitment, these two countries will be faced with a huge dilemma. Japan’s effort to pass constitutional referendum to recreate an armed force were hampered by massive protests, while South Korea’s more eagerness to build nuclear weapons may anger not only North Korea, but also China, its largest trading partner. With ongoing anemic economic growth, it is quite likely that the two countries will bandwagon further with China, given their high dependence on exports to support growth

Populists in Europe: Trump’s victory, correlated or not, will likely provide a major boost for the populists in many European countries. We’ll see how things roll out in the upcoming 2017 elections in France and Germany; the closest one is to see the second run-off of presidential election in Austria scheduled to be held by the end of this year

Mexico: US relationship with Mexico under Trump administration will be largely uneasy, and any friction can bring Mexico into economic recession (United States accounts for more than half of Mexico’s annual trade volumes)

Southeast Asia: Trump’s commitment to Southeast Asia will drastically decline, unlike Obama’s overtures

South China Sea: Let alone South China Sea (the biggest winner will be China). Expect countries like Malaysia and the Philippines to bandwagon further with China, which they now do. Vietnam, having a more negative sentiment towards China rather than US in spite of the devastating war, will be forced to rely further on ASEAN, whose solidarity has been in question

India: President Trump will likely align very closely with PM Narendra Modi (perhaps Trump will learn some Hindi too, with terrible accent)

Dictators: The fact that he described Vladimir Putin as ‘great leader’ and had met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may indicate that he will be very pragmatic in befriending any leaders, regardless of the fact whether they are democrats or dictators. By the way, US foreign policy has had a long history of supporting authoritarian leaders, so this will be hardly a surprise

*****

While this may be a brief glimpse of what a President Trump can potentially do, I caution that there are also ‘plot twists’: some of his plans may not work out, and there is a pretty high chance he won’t even be the president for a full four-year term up to 2020. Think of these scenarios:

  • Trump commits a scandal when he is a president
  • Trump’s ongoing lawsuits and trial proceedings result in his impeachment (especially if Republicans begin to abandon him when the wrongdoings are so severe)
  • Trump is in feud with his vice president, Mike Pence, and there have been rumors about their own discord even during the election season
  • Trump falls ill due to ‘too much stress’, and announces resignation
  • Trump falls ill and needs to be hospitalized ‘for quite some time’
  • Trump conflicts with the GOP, and the latter thinks of strategies to begin impeaching him

Still, remember, nobody – let alone I myself – bears assurances whether these predictions will work out or not. He may try to temper himself, or that he may go on with all the big pushes. I am talking about what Trump may do, simply from a rational assessment basis. Things may go wrong, and things may go right.

I only hope your vote on November 8 can make the difference. Good luck, the world.

All Delighted People is not about all delighted people

all-delighted-people

 

Indeed, if I need to be honest, this is actually the saddest song I have ever heard.

If you are still not acquainted with why the heck ‘All Delighted People’ is not about all delighted people, you need to know who on earth Sufjan Stevens (spell: sue-fian – as in ‘fiance’) is. Perhaps I can describe him as a seriously underrated musical talent in the era of instant fame and pop culture. A Detroit-based singer and multi-instrumentalist, Stevens has been unusually productive in producing albums, oftentimes with shifting styles, tones, and musical instruments used. He can seamlessly shift from guitar to piano to keyboard to drum to oboe to xylophone, and others you better consult with Wikipedia. His genres also do not necessarily stick to one form alone; the songs span from indie folk to indie rock to avant-garde rock to electronica, or, to much of his own creative destruction as he pleases, deliberate random mashes of disorderly sounds and blasts of the instruments combined.

The lyrics are similarly deep in content and message, too. Say, a girlfriend’s death on a holiday (Casimir Pulaski Day), reflection on a serial killer that catapulted the current ‘creepy clown’ epidemic (John Wayne Gacy, Jr.), songs about dying towns and cities in Rust Belt (Flint – for the Unemployed and the Underpaid), unwavering – and deeply complicating – love for his mother (most songs in his 2015 album, Carrie and Lowell), or even something as absurd as a ‘reported UFO sighting’ (the flute-dominated Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois). Other than these cantabile carols, he also released albums that highlighted his own musical scores (one of them is based on 12 Chinese zodiacs).

And there comes All Delighted People.

It is not the longest song he’s ever sung (the even longer one is Impossible Soul, which is nearly 26 minutes), but at over 11 minutes long, All Delighted People brings to you, indeed, a ‘homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence‘, as the album itself describes.

Never mind all the faces of the delighted people in the photo above, but none of this song contains any references about ‘brightening your day’. From my perspective, this song seemingly tries to raise one difficult, existentialist question worth self-introspection and some reminiscing.

Amid all the suffering in the world, can we still become a truly delighted people?

Looking again at all the faces on the picture above – all smiling, laughing, happy faces, the context dramatically changes once the song plays out. Everyone, and literally everyone, has had a fair share of delightful – and unpleasant – experiences throughout our lives. Some may be more tragic than others. Some may seem a bit too superficial. Some may seem like no different from ‘showing off’. Others may simply refuse to talk about them at all. The song itself is open for interpretation, but you can imagine all sorts of possible scenarios (as Stevens has put them into his own aria).

Someone losing their beloved ones.

Someone unsure to whom one can share one’s own difficult moments.

Some difficult choices that need to be made, possibly at the expense of what you currently possess – or maybe value so deeply.

Someone frustrated at the superficiality of the world. Regardless of whatever celebrations, events, or any joyous stuff, one can always perceive the ‘unreal’ out of these virtues.

Someone sensing the futility of prayers amid all the calamities, and how the cycle repeats itself.

Someone struggling to understand the true essence of the world (reminding me of Albert Camus’ philosophical essay Myth of the Sisyphus).

This is how All Delighted People out-Sound of Silence the Sound of Silence itself. Music background itself is chilling – and a bit horror-like, followed by a cantabile choir echoing the lyrics (as though ghosts were singing the song out loud). It amplifies what already exists in this, one of Simon and Garfunkel’s major masterpieces. About the emptiness, ‘hollowness’ of human interaction, the superficiality of human relationships, and again, the futility of prayers. This is not going to be an easy song to discern (that’s why most people return to modern, easy-peasy pop), but it certainly is one that will not easily leave your memory pretty soon, once you listen through it.

Again, this is not to encourage everyone to be all-out pessimists (neither being 100% optimist nor being 100% pessimist helps our lives). Stevens, possibly being a monist (or non-religious God-believer), wants us to constantly reflect on ourselves about our status, our relationship with fellow human beings, and of course, our own vulnerability. I suggest that you listen to it, only when you are willing to listen to it. It ain’t an easy piece.

Lyrics: http://genius.com/Sufjan-stevens-all-delighted-people-original-version-lyrics

 

Why intellectuals fail

the ivory tower

 

I actually kinda struggled in the beginning to think of the title for this post, whether I should put ‘why intellectuals fail’, or probably, ‘why demagogues succeed’. You may think these two titles give very few differences, but in an era where it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a populist, a demagogue, a ‘nativist’, or other titles in political extremism and their intensifying blurriness in the world of conventional politics, which I am very sure as hell someone out there is ready to launch the tirades, I would rather choose the former over the latter, while possibly raising a degree of criticisms from some of the intellects.

Also, debating whether the fair share of responsibility on the current rise of populism-laden politics lays squarely on the fault of intellectuals or on the so-called ‘demagogues’ is like playing a game of chickens and eggs. Such causality is prone to open-ended interpretations by different people who have distinctive views on this phenomenon. A lot of the commoners will blame the intellects, or the so-called ‘elites’, as being held accountable for their preference to anti-establishment leaders. On the other hand, reverse the worldview, and those ‘mask-wearing devils’ would place the blame solely on the stupidity of these people themselves, as well as the demagogues who continue to tout wrongly misplaced ideals and notions of the societies.

Whatever it is, here is the truth: just like the Schrodinger’s cat dilemma – whether the cat, having been put into a radioactive container, is alive or dead – both views may actually be correct. Nonetheless, as this post is intended largely as an op-ed, and as I am entitled to my own opinion, I would rather discuss on the question of how today’s global phenomenon is made possible, in large part by the ‘failure’ of the intellectuals themselves.

First and foremost, we can hardly deny the fact that these recent years have been pretty rocky for global affairs. We have Donald Trump currently organizing, colloquially speaking, the world’s largest presidential-scale entertainment show that out-Apprentice the Apprentice itself, the so-called 2016 US presidential election. His past statements in the last few weeks have been disastrous, yet weirdly speaking, over 40% of US electorate (comprising most of the adults living within the States) are still willing to vote for him, because, ‘the devil you know’. Any extraterrestrial civilization passing by our planet may likely voice their confusion about what is wrong with human civilization; even if Elon Musk’s simulation argument were true, the ‘creator’ of this universe-sized simulated world will also be confounded whether there have been ‘programming errors’ with the game itself. But, sometimes facts are just simply stranger than the fiction. And then this is followed by the rise of ‘alt-right’ political movements in various European countries; one of them almost won the presidential election in Austria this year (but a run-off election will be scheduled by the end of this year). Afterwards, we have witnessed ‘Brexit’; albeit given its status as a non-binding referendum, this has caused unprecedented impacts towards its economy, and to a certain degree, the stability of global economy as well. The Nigel Farage Show Season 1 is being aired, and it remains effervescent.

What do these illustrations have in common? People are losing trust on the establishment. On the politicians, on the ‘experts’, on the elites, not excluding the ‘intellects’, which I emphasize in this post. It is like – how I should describe it – what the experts say and what the people truly experience are reflected into two different versions of reality. One major tenet is globalization. Experts, intellects, much of the ‘elites’, all of them have been focusing on the benefits of globalization and its associated embroideries, like free trade, immigration, economic mobility, cosmopolitanism, what have you. Here’s the thing: do most professors in any Ivy League school (say, Harvard, or Princeton, or UPenn) precisely understand the suffering of a working-class family in Detroit, Cleveland, or any other Rust Belt cities? Do most faculty members and scholars working in London School of Economics, or any elite universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge, or other places alike ever visualize themselves being a working-class family living in Birmingham or other industrial towns in England whose manufacturing jobs continue to shrink? I ask these questions not because I try to be populist (indeed, I have been very fervently against the notion of populism itself), but rather to simply give a preliminary view of the existing perception gaps among the people inhabiting the ‘ivory towers’, and the rest who are ‘outside’.

Looking at Branko Milanovic’s chart – which I have attached in two previous posts, it becomes apparent that there are bigger forces that affect such skewed imbalances. Many people in the developed world have seen their real incomes either staying flat, or actually decreasing, in the last two decades. 80% of American population, while comparatively prosperous relative to the rest of the world, is economically insecure, as their incomes can hardly match the soaring living costs (although calculations massively change when the term is shifted into ‘disposable incomes’). A bigger percentage of people are more likely to be less wealthier than their preceding generations. McKinsey Global Institute, having conducted research on 25 advanced economies, estimated that over 65-70% of the population in those countries have experienced such stagnant – or even dropping – income growth. Who is the ‘easiest’ culprit to catch? It’s globalization. With jobs offshoring to emerging markets – notably China, but also other developing countries – the manufacturing sector is shrinking in terms of workforce. Productivity increases actually in cumulative terms, but the primary driver is automation and other high-tech industries, which employ increasingly fewer people than before to produce greater outputs. Capital income is growing faster than labor income, thanks to the increasingly dominant role of service sectors. Social mobility becomes more difficult to attain given such situation. ‘Experts’, as though becoming a new N-word, actively talk about ‘economic prospects’, ‘huge opportunities’, and other shiny, Pollyanna-ish terms, but once the scenery shifts, things change. More people are working on makeshift jobs – sometimes two, or even three – to make ends meet (apologies that I do not have the dataset for now, but try Knoema or Quandl to find if there’s any).

And then all the resistance begins. People pointing fingers to the government, one whom they think has become increasingly co-opted, or fallen prey into, vested political and economic interests. People start to ‘attack’ the ‘experts’, the intellects, delivering a death verdict that all the educated people are ‘part of the elite’. This is what has happened with Brexit; all we can only hope is that Donald Trump ‘ends’ his presidential-sized Apprentice show after the electoral race is over. Many start to think experts, intellects, and ‘all the educated’ are components of the government, the establishment, those in power; these people trust more on politicians spreading false flags, fake statistics, conspiracy theories, and all other matters that might want to make us mummify ourselves with tinfoil. These are the two sad things that I need to say: first, ‘we’ have been neglected by these intellectual elites. Second, and worse, many of ‘us’ have been exploited by those demagogues in such situations for their own political advantages.

Where are the intellects, then? I’m very sure that as most schools are pushing scholars to produce as many research papers as possible (which, sadly, have a high probability of being neither read nor cited in their lifetimes), they won’t focus so much time on probing deeper into the actual real-world issues ‘out there’. I apologize if this sounds like over-generalizing (again, this is my opinion piece), but such is the stark truth in the academia. The academics who perform better than their peers in terms of paper citation may be more likely to be invited into either government bodies or major corporations as advisers; this is what solidifies a lot of people’s views that ‘intellects are part of the establishment’! This is also why they would prefer listening to populist preachers (say: Breitbart, Infowars, which Eric Andre referred to as ‘war on info’) who offer bombastic – yet deeply rotten – info, rather than to the boring, formal, robotic-like explanation by these experts. They are more willing to have leaders that are ready to make mountain-moving announcements, rather than policy wonks who will deliberately consult with multiple parties, refer to research papers (occasionally), and continue adjusting their policies to ‘satisfy everyone’.

Of course more scholars right now are becoming increasingly proactive in addressing such issues openly, but given all the shocks we have endured in the last few years, it still takes time for more people within the academia circle to start ‘coming out’ and exchanging views more actively with the communities, which I personally believe (though not yet totally proven) can reduce the euphoria of populism that has taken hold so much of the developed world today. For sure, the ‘mummies’ inside the ivory towers need to be ‘woken up’.

 

To read more (from the websites of what you call the ‘elitists’):

McKinsey Global Institute – A new perspective on income inequality (to understand the surge of populism today)

Project Syndicate – A brief history of (in)equality

Quartz – Why Trump’s voters are not complete idiots

A response to the post “Indonesia and the passion for virginity”

morality is not judged by a body

 

A blogger named Amaryllis Puspabening has recently published her op-ed titled “Indonesia And The Passion of Virginity” in The Huffington Post. She voiced her discontent at the current state of how women, in general, are treated in Indonesia, such as taboos about sex discussion, virginity test as a measure of morality, and how women are oftentimes forced to ‘sterilize’ themselves to be considered ‘pure’ in the society. To make matters worse, in certain parts of the country, some government officials are proposing to conduct virginity tests as either ‘entry’ requirements into high schools or for school graduation. Responding to her post, I would say I largely approve of what she has said, although there may be certain issues that I think we also need to raise in this discussion.

I share the same degree of frustration with her regarding the question of ‘virginity test’. Measuring someone’s degree of morality is not by looking at one person’s bodily conditions, particularly something that should only be of private nature to the woman. The same can be said for people with tattoos, or have other forms of body modification: are they all always perceived as ‘bad people’? Some may be, but this still does not justify the generalization used to equate all of them as belonging to the same category. I can hardly ascertain the logic of where ‘virginity test’ can immediately make somebody pass a morality test: yes, she does not have premarital sex, but does that become a well-defined thread that will make her look moral, even if, say, she will commit other forms of wrongdoing in the future? What if she commits corruption, which is one of other great sins? Or, say, what if she carries a premeditated murder? What is then the precise moral boundaries?

It is also an irrefutable fact that sex education in Indonesia still has a very long way to go for quality improvement, as well as our mindsets. With regard to the former, there are insufficient attempts to truly educate people about the risks of teenage pregnancy, dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or facts relating to reproductive health and hygiene. It becomes as though talking about vaginas (yes, I won’t censor this word) or penises (yes, no censorship for this one as well) would be equated with talking about pornography. That is a hardly rational explanation. So doctors are required to censor their words when explaining about reproductive health? What would we learn? Simply reaching out to the young generation and telling us ‘don’t have sex before the marriage’ will only make people even more curious on why they can’t have sex before the marriage. And you know what I mean when I say ‘even more curious’.

Regarding the latter, I refer to ‘us’, rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’. I refer to ‘us’, because if we have to be honest with us as a nation, we also still have a very long way to go to achieve progress. Many among us are still within the huge taboos to talk about sex, especially between parents and the children. Resorting to the ‘S-word’ can turn a conversation into a sword; we would sometimes be accused of ‘encouraging people to have sex’, when the fact is that we want to talk about sex education and make people understand the right notion of defining sex. As parents are reluctant to teach the kids, what would be the alternative? Many of them will satisfy their curiosity by watching porn sites. It’s undeniable. It happens not only isolated to some other places, but also in a nationwide basis. We also heavily stigmatize people conducting premarital sex, delivering a death verdict that they will carry out in their lifetime. As a consequence, what will happen? While I avoid being an academic in this blog, my postulation is that once people are labelled with negative perceptions in their heads, it is very likely they will continue doing the similar vice, or descending into even worse forms of misdeeds, or facing a prospect of no bright future for the rest of their lives. We become a society that does not forgive, nor grant them a second chance to rehabilitate their lives. To make matters worse, we sometimes gossip about certain people doing such things. Again, I emphasize the word ‘we’ because I want to avoid being didactic; indeed, we all play a direct and/or indirect part in perpetuating such mindsets.

As much as I agree with the content of the post, however, I also need to caution some points. And I do not expect the author, Ms. Amaryllis, nor the readers here to agree with my arguments. I still believe the idea of sex as a sacrosanct notion, rather than one to be used for hedonistic purposes. When a person is in a romantic relationship with somebody else, god forbid, nobody knows whether that relationship will last for eternity. What if the couple has had sex before they actually know each other’s personality and characteristics in full details? Although such issue should only be of totally private nature between the couple, how would either the man or the woman be prepared to address their future counterparts should they end the relationship? As a person leaning to the center, I do still believe that sex should only be made possible once a couple has stated their full commitment to a relationship, say, through a marriage. The key, here, is for the public to understand the concept of responsible sex. Once again, I do not expect everyone on board to agree with me, as even I personally would still prefer to maintain a certain degree of conventional values that majority of Indonesians still adhere to.

I also believe in the concept of gender equality, given the systemic discrimination that women have endured for too long (and most of human history), but I also disagree with the notion of ‘complete liberation’ of either men or women, especially when it comes to defining sex. I am still alien to the concept of defining sex as an art, or as a form of entertainment, that either men or women could simply change partners, and have sex with different partners. I am in no authority to ban them from doing so (as this is their personal choice and decision), but such notion remains totally beyond my personal toleration, and I believe that there remains a need for a ‘boundary’. This is a point of departure regarding my opinions about the post.

Despite some of my minor disagreements with the author, I still appreciate and laud her for her willingness to break the walls in our minds when talking about sex. My disagreements occur largely because not all Indonesian values are totally negative; there are certain values that are positive that we, as a society, still need to maintain, such as the belief of sex as a sacred notion. Nonetheless, even people’s mindsets change. We (and I) used to be ‘terrified’ of the ideas of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), but as time goes by, and despite ongoing denunciations by a huge portion of our population, we gradually start to accept them as a part of our society. I do not expect to change my mindset for a certain period of time, but this does not indicate I am totally closed to such topics people may call it ‘taboo’. If we are willing to shake our long-held beliefs, and start to open our minds a little bit further, perhaps we can actually discover the roots of the existing problems, and figure the solutions out.

 

You can access the original article by clicking through this link.