Short film: The Brain Hack

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

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

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

Hint: it has a twist.

Opinion: Indonesia’s political Theatre of the Absurd

puppet

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So who’s a cop, my parents?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hong kong

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comeback: rethinking myself as a blogger

Calvin and Hobbes

 

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

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

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

 

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

2014

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

**********

 

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

2014: year in review (by countries, part 2)

2014

 

This is the continuation of previous post I published yesterday. Here are a few more countries under the spotlight this year:

 

Iraq – this country has long been notoriously associated with sectarian strife, the failed US invasions, and right now, a seemingly new synonym is ironically added into once was an influential power in Middle East a millennium ago: ISIS. Since its advent in the middle of this year, this organization, led by a former CIA informant (ha!), has committed numerous atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities across much of the country, most notably Christians and Yazidis. Excluding their poor public-relations exercise by means of decapitation, which, as horrendous as it seems, still continues to entice thousands of foreigners across the whole world to join this movement.

With the Iraqi Army still in partial disarray due to internal conflicts, who else remains in charge of limiting ISIS’s movements? Big kudos to Peshmerga, the army for Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. While the Army’s offensive has been largely limited (and some even escape), the Peshmerga fighters remain fiercely committed to defending their region, and more generally, the country as a whole, despite the frequent fracas between Baghdad and Erbil (capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) in regard to oil production sharing contracts.

Iran – it has been an uneasy year for President Hassan Rouhani, as nuclear deals with Western countries remain largely in limbo. But one piece of slightly good news abounds: Iran has, for the first time since Ahmadinejad era, achieved positive economic growth, albeit small compared to most emerging markets. With GDP growth estimated at 2%, no matter how small it is, Iran is expected to move slowly into better direction in the years to come.

The big concern that matters, as of my opinion, is the limited freedom of expression that prevails.

Israel / Palestine – “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Gandhi’s quote resonates very obviously in terms of how these two countries relate to each other. A few Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, followed by a retaliation by which a Palestinian child was done so in similar manner. And huge conflicts, due in part to deep scars that remain in both governments, reverberated again, as history has taught. More than 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed during an offensive by Israeli military in August this year. But is Israel the sole culprit in this conflict? What about Hamas, notoriously known for exploiting civilian places like schools and hospitals to launch unending attacks to Israel? With now Israel dominated by hard-line Zionists, and Palestine partially under control of hard-line leaders as well, the doors towards negotiation and dialogues will not be achievable in the near future.

A piece of good news that remains largely overlooked in this conflict zone: start-ups, mostly in software development and creative products, in both countries are flourishing, and more European countries are recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state.

Japan – Shinzo Abe was reelected as Prime Minister of Japan in a somewhat risky bet he placed in this year’s general election, as his Abenomics was showing failure. In short term, his quantitative easing policy has pumped over trillions of dollars into the market, therefore stimulating exports growth, abundant cash, as well as inflation, the word first time appearing in the news after more than 20 years experiencing continuous periods of deflation. Nonetheless, with Abe’s introduction of consumption tax at 8%, this deals a catastrophic blow for his ambitious initiative intended to revive Japanese economic miracle. With GDP contracting this quarter, the country unofficially enters its recession again. Even his ‘Womenomics’ program, aimed to increase female participation in leadership seats across Japan’s corporations and organizations into 30%, will be hardly achievable in this decade.

In 2015, challenges will not be even easier for Abe, as a whole range of issues will soon face his administration. Revision of US-drafted post-war constitution has attracted massive opposition from largely Japanese public, still traumatized by the deadly repercussions of World War II, even though Japan will never become a militarist power again, given the country’s increasing demographic pressure. His plans to restart nuclear power plants, ratify the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pass national secrecy laws, and handle Japan’s fragile relations with China similarly encounter big resistance from much of the Japanese population as well. 2014-2018 will not be a smooth path for Abe, were he to continue his tenure.

Libya – the country remains largely fractured three years after Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered by opposition forces in a NATO-led civil war that destroyed Libya in 2011. Some militants have previously formed their own ‘governorate’ in the country’s eastern part, only to face another armed resistance from other fighters, while several ISIS sympathizers have begun to infiltrate the country’s security. Even with Libya’s riches stored abroad (the country’s sovereign wealth fund reaches a staggering amount of 120 billion US$, but mostly in bank accounts in Switzerland, notorious for their secrecy laws), the money can hardly be used for Libyan public, given that much of the money remains under control of Qaddafi’s relatives, many of whom had escaped abroad (except for his son, Saif al-Islam, who may possibly face death sentence).

Malaysia – 2014 is the most disastrous year for the country’s aviation industry, as three airliners belonging to its most reliable carriers, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, perished this year. The most puzzling of which was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a scheduled flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing that ended up nowhere. After almost 10 months of investigation, involving hundreds of rescue ships and even war ships from more than 27 countries, not even the slightest trace of the plane can be found. The plane was presumed, as by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to have ‘ended up somewhere in Indian Ocean’. This makes the search efforts even riskier, given that much of Indian Ocean’s terrains remain largely unmapped, some of which may have depth over 6,000 meters. Four months after this tragedy, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 again became a tragedy, as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine mistook it as ‘Ukrainian military transport plane’ and shot it down. 239 people in MH370 had never been found, while 298 people in MH17 were instantly killed by the missile launched by the separatists.

And this Sunday, Air Asia, long notable as Asia’s largest low-cost carrier with great safety records, faced its first major crisis with the disappearance of its plane in Air Asia Flight QZ 8501, flying from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, to Singapore. 162 passengers and crew were inside the plane, which remains missing as of this hour.

However, other than aviation disasters, Malaysia faces another major issue in regard to the country’s increasing authoritarian rule, as Najib’s administration restarted decades-old sedition laws, used only during British colonial rule, to detain political opponents without prior permission from judiciary powers, including Anwar Ibrahim, the most outspoken. The country also faces ethnic and religious tumults, as Christians are no longer allowed to use ‘Allah’ in their sermons, and more pro-Malay policies at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities, many of whom have increasingly emigrated abroad.

Myanmar – the country doesn’t experience much progress in democratic transition, as one-fourth of the national parliament remains solely reserved for military. Even the constitution itself requires a law to be approved by more than three-fourths of the entire members, something which can be easily aborted by the powerful military members.

How the country handles its ethnic minorities will remain a concern to be observed in 2015 and years to come, most commonly illustrated by the country’s failure to relate with Muslim Rohingya minorities, many of whom have fled abroad to avoid persecution by ultra-nationalist Buddhists.

One thing almost for sure: in next year’s 2015 election, there is large probability Aung San Suu Kyi will not become the country’s president, given many of the current constitution’s limitations.

Nigeria – Africa’s most populated country faces its major crisis when Boko Haram, an Islamist movement affiliated with Al-Qaeda in northern Nigeria, kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls, sparking an international campaign to free them. However, the kidnapping itself is not the mere problem the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is being faced with. Continuous suicide-bomb attacks have killed over thousands of civilians in many parts across the country, prompting military operations to capture those involved.

Nonetheless, there remains some good news that is worthy of international attention. The country, given its proximity to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, was once thought as a potential ‘bomb’ for Ebola epidemic to turn itself into a pandemic, given the country’s population that now reaches 170 million, as well as high density, low sanitation, acute poverty, and little awareness about cleanliness. However, within months, less than two dozens of cases took place across the whole country, with the number of mortality countable by fingers. This is something seemingly impossible for many experts, but Nigeria, given the national unity in facing this crisis, has proven to the world that no matter how problematic things seem to be, they can resolve it successfully.

And Nigeria’s GDP has for the first time surpassed that of South Africa, therefore becoming Africa’s largest economy. While oil and gas revenues remain the largest source for government budget (and often corrupted), Nigerian economy has been more diversified in recent years.

North Korea – other than the Kim-Obama fracas about naughty comedy ‘The Interview’ and the subsequent Sony hacking attacks that follow (which may possibly be conducted by third parties using North Korean IP addresses), the country is not as isolated as people perceive anymore. Over hundred thousands of Chinese tourists are now visiting North Korea every year, followed by a large flow of cash from China, its principal ally, largely driven by informal economy that the country is mostly depending upon. As economy has collapsed, majority of the North Koreans have now turned into either smuggling or small trade, and the country’s unofficial currencies are either US dollar, euro, or Chinese yuan (South Korean won is not allowed).

The purge, and eventual execution, of Jang Song-thaek remains a proof, however, that Kim Jong-un can be as ruthless as his grandfather and father were (Jang was his uncle, and a sort of ‘intermediary’ between North Korea and China in terms of economic, trade, and investment relations).

 

(wait for part 3)

 

2014: year in review (by countries, part 1)

2014

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit

 

 

2014 has been a tumultuous, difficult, peculiar, as well as uneasy year for dozens of countries across the world. As of what we have seen so far, we have experienced missing airplanes, mass protests, return of dictatorships, currencies tumbling, political tensions, elections gone wrong, and dozens of things else which seemingly appear dim, indifferent, and oftentimes unforgiving. Nonetheless, taking it in other perspectives, there already appeared hopes, good expectations, new leaders, and new mindsets. Economy has successfully rebounded in some places, scientific breakthroughs taken place, and conventional wisdom redefined. What else to expect in 2015? Having looked at all the hodgepodge occurring this year, it is worthwhile reviewing 2014 as it nears its end in two days or so.

Reminder: not all countries will be reviewed.

I’ll review these events by countries in alphabetical order as follows:

 

Afghanistan – not much progress has happened in terms of security, despite the end of 13-year NATO mission in this war-torn nation, which has seen countless lives, mostly civilians, perished. Indeed, this year is a particularly deadly one: more than 4,000 Afghans, soldiers, civilians, and Taliban fighters altogether, have died in a triangle of conflicts between each other. However, this year also marks the first time a relatively peaceful election organized, with an iconoclastic World Bank economist, Ashraf Ghani (formerly an anthropology major), elected as the new president, which, after months of protracted conflict with a former tribal commander, Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to form a ‘national unity government’. Equipped with technocratic experiences in rebuilding the country’s currency and housing system, which have seen some pretty good success, it is hoped that Ghani can gradually commence to reform this country, something the public is yet to anticipate next year.

Algeria / Burkina Faso / France / Mali - Air Algerie Flight 5017 tragedy took place. A flight that was supposed to fly 116 people from Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, to Algiers, capital of Algeria, ended up in a plane crash in a large swath of Sahara Desert in northern Mali, killing all people on board. The bulk of the passengers were Burkinabes and French. (This is not a pretty good year for aviation, to be honest)

Australia – Sydney hostage crisis was a ‘black swan’ phenomenon for this country known for its almost guaranteed safety. But this also serves as a cautionary tale for Tony Abbott’s government, whose popularity has been at stake with many unpopular policies amid a slowing economy, as hundreds of Australians are believed to have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The murder of 8 underage children in Cairns is also another tragedy befalling this country.

Brazil – World Cup was successfully organized in this country recently recovering from mass protests in 2013, when millions of people took to the streets to demand more attention by Dilma Rousseff’s government to address social inequality issues. This year also oversaw presidential election, by which Rousseff was reelected for the second time. Many issues remain for the President to solve throughout her tenure, however.

Brunei – this oil-rich country of barely 420,000 people became international headlines when the country’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, approved of first-phase sharia rules to be implemented on a nationwide scale. Caning is now introduced as punishment, and will soon be followed by other harsher ones, including amputation of hands for theft and decapitation for murder and other sinful activities. And what now happens? Emigration rate is slowly peaking up (but largely compensated by the huge inflow of migrants into this economy still enjoying the bonanza from oil industry, despite reduced oil prices).

China – As economic growth has increasingly slowed down, there is increasing proof that China’s decades-old economic miracle is seemingly coming to an end. But not so fast, people. Even with a current single-digit economic growth, the country’s nominal GDP output in 2013 was estimated to be more than 3.3 trillion US$, unmatched by any emerging economy in Asia, and even the whole world. And one achievement, as minor as it seems to be, that China has started to surpass the current global superpower, the United States, can be seen through its GDP figures measured by purchasing power parity: China has gained a whooping level of 16.7 trillion US$, while US itself is now on the level of 16.4 trillion US$.

And seemingly President Xi Jinping, as far as his government is so intent to denounce hegemony in all forms, is doing a paradox that all rising powers inevitably will encounter: exercising hegemony in their own manner. With his firm stance on South China Sea and East China Sea issue, which he explicitly states belongs to Chinese sovereignty, it remains to be seen how conflict escalation will develop in the future, in particular vulnerable states like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, and India, all of which stake out a territorial dispute with the soon-to-be global superpower. But President Xi has many agenda in his mind as well: he is now envisioning two gigantic, new Silk Road projects, one across continents, and the other across oceans. Two new financial institutions have also been recently announced, namely BRICS’ New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Surely, an alternative form of IMF, World Bank, and ADB, three of which are dominated by European Union, United States, and Japan. In the latest APEC Summit last November, President Xi is also currently pushing for a larger, and even more China-centric alternative of Obama-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). China has also increasingly asserted itself in global role by contributing financially to crisis-ravaged countries ranging from Argentina to Russia, while offering countless infrastructure projects in developing countries to strengthen China’s position. Nonetheless, in years to come, while China’s active role remains exciting for dozens of countries desperate for technical assistance, how the country will resolve numerous issues with their neighbors remains a test to be seen.

Anti-corruption campaign itself has also taken a toll with more than 70,000 cadres captured and punished, the most high-profile of which was Zhou Yongkang, the country’s most formidable security czar having embezzled up to 14 billion US$ from state budget. However, hardening this campaign remains a dangerous game for President Xi, as while doing too soft may ravage Communist Party’s legitimacy, responding too harsh will intensify internal clashes between elites competing for influence within the Party’s leadership, therefore putting national security at stake.

Denmark – this Scandinavian country didn’t receive as much attention as others had in mass media, but among diplomatic discourse and in international relations discussions, Denmark was a sensation. This country has, for the first time, emboldened its claim of nearly the entire North Pole, given that the kingdom maintains possession of its centuries-long self-ruled colony, Greenland. Canada, US, Russia, and Norway, countries with similarly big stakes in the Arctic region, have got a new competitor.

Egypt – The country returned again to authoritarian rule after two bloody revolutions in 2011 and 2013. The former was against Hosni Mubarak, while the latter against Mohamed Morsy, the first democratically elected president. Now with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military general, leading this nation of more than 80 million, stability was restored, but rather on a false perspective. It was a kind of stability produced only under repression, and limited freedoms of expression. Many political prisoners remained incarcerated, some of whom had already been executed, while Mubarak’s associates were gradually released, including Mubarak himself. What is to expect in 2015? As long as Sisi maintains a strong control and doesn’t address crucial issues (fuel subsidies, gas exports to Israel, Palestine crisis, Suez conflict, ISIS), there isn’t much room for progress.

Guinea / Liberia / Sierra Leone – the Ebola epidemic went out of control this year, completely shutting down the three most severely impacted countries in West Africa. Nearly 20,000 people were infected, with mortality rate exceeding 7,000 people. This also served as a major leadership test for health experts and government leaders alike. While the disease has largely subsided (it didn’t turn out to be a pandemic), this leaves devastating effects for the three nations.

India – the age of national leadership had come with the victory of Narendra Modi, and the party he leads, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the world’s largest general election held this year. More than 550 million people cast their votes, with an overwhelming majority showing support for Modi, an experienced technocrat having transformed Gujarat, his home state almost 60 million strong, into an investment-friendly regime, despite controversies surrounding 2002 Gujarat riots, by which Modi was possibly implicated. Despite the human rights limbo, Modi has proven himself, so far, as a pretty successful leader, having initiated bold moves to make India more open to investment, and more assertive in global role as well.

Modi’s most ambitious agenda is to turn India into a global power with a stronghold in Indian Ocean, something he expects to achieve within his tenure. So far, he has remained cautious in balancing his relations with both China and Japan, by which Modi was closer to the latter, particularly its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a doppelganger referred to by some people. Nonetheless, reconciling India-Pakistan relations, despite an initial good start, will remain a challenge to be seen in years to come.

But India must pride itself on its scientific breakthroughs: having sent a spacecraft to Moon, it now sends another to Mars, making use of locally sourced technologies at limited costs. India’s flagship space organization, ISRO, will also design other spacecraft to be sent to other regions within the solar system pretty soon. Stay tuned for next milestones.

Indonesia – this country of 250 million, a role model of democracy for the world, slightly backtracked when parliament dominated by opposition passed a new regional elections bill which eliminated direct elections for governors, regents, and mayors, leading to mass protests. One main reason: much of the people no longer expect a return of dictatorship, something that can be retraced from this unpopular policy, which was soon cancelled by the outgoing Yudhoyono administration signing a presidential order to restore direct elections in administrative levels.

This country also faced another major test in democracy when the country would soon oversee the first direct transfer of power between democratically elected presidents, as seen by the presidential election hardly fought between Joko Widodo, a successful mayor of Surakarta (2005-2012) and governor of Jakarta (2012-2014), and Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of dictator Suharto as well as a former military strongman, who was potentially implicated in a series of human rights abuses. Widodo hailed from humble origins, spending his childhood in riverside slums in Surakarta, while Prabowo originated from a family of aristocrats. This is also the first election by which a civilian with no military background (but with support from old Sukarno-affiliated elites) won, despite massive black campaign.

For the first two months in power, President Widodo had done successfully in addressing some issues, ranging from simplifying investment permits to reforming fiscal extent by decreasing fuel subsidies to more than 10 billion US$, as well as bringing home foreign investment by Chinese infrastructure corporations worth 27 billion US$ during APEC Summit in Beijing. Nonetheless, in terms of human rights issue, there remains much for President Widodo to resolve in the years to come. His ‘global maritime axis’ doctrine, while so far attracting populist support across the nation, remains to be seen in the future, given the country’s limited ability to realize his vision.

But the end of 2014 didn’t come smoothly for this country as an airliner went missing, namely AirAsia Flight QZ8501., the Surabaya-Singapore flight that went wrong. Up to now, the plane hasn’t been discovered. More search efforts will be deployed within due course.

 

(wait for part 2)