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!

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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.