On feminism – an essay

I would like to open this blog post, stating my belief that many – if not most – feminists across the world are good, kind-hearted people.

And I am writing this post from my position as a non-feminist.

This topic has spawned numerous conversations and debates, and sometimes I’m really interested in some of such discourses. Many issues across the world, pretty much, have something to do with this concept. Issues as brutal as rape, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, or other kinds of sexual assault, or those as mundanely quotidian as gender wage gaps, working hours, female labor force participation rate, workplace discrimination, opportunity and access gaps, or maternal leave, are themes that I have frequently encountered through articles or videos in Facebook that were shared by some of my friends or news magazines. Occasionally, in order to partially kill the curiosity itself, I checked its related statistics, or facts and figures, in order to research further about such questions.

As frequently as many people have voiced their concerns and/or expressions about the need for gender equality, nonetheless, certain minorities within this movement have done so in ways that can be perceived as annoying, or even disconcerting. If we have to be honest, the words “feminism”, “social justice warrior”, as well as “political correctness” have been used interchangeably, particularly by Western-dominated mass media. Certain speakers have been banned from giving talks because of their legal views towards certain rape cases that they were immediately derided as “rape apologists”. Conservative speakers who wanted to talk about abortion were immediately banned from campuses due to the pressure from these groups. Universities have been forced, occasionally, to apologize simply for inviting those speakers. There have been criticisms that these groups of individuals seek to enforce a logic that only their own arguments matter, and anyone else disagreeing with theirs would be labelled in as many negative terms as possible. And then there are certain militant groups – like, Femen – where those female protesters would no doubt undress themselves in public, all the while demanding rights to be respected. And just to inform you, one documentary from Al Jazeera (that Qatar-based news channel that Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to dissolve) illustrated the nasty extent to which a ‘gender war’ can take place, pitting radicalized feminist activists vis-à-vis equally radicalized ‘men’s rights activists’, as is the case in South Korea.

My university friends once recounted to me their classroom experience of being taught by a professor who also happens to be a feminism activist, and probably a very outspoken one as well. In a very emotionally agitated language, one of them complained to me about the professor’s notions of a mandatory leave – or even salaries – for housewives. “What the hell is the idea of a mandatory leave or salaries for housewives?” he told me in a somewhat angry tone. “Are we losing the essence of what a ‘mother’ supposedly is?”

To be completely honest, sometimes I have been left more confused than inspired by the things that these certain individuals have done. Sometimes I also have debates with some friends of mine – some of whom are also themselves feminists – about the true essence of this concept, one that I still continue to explore and contemplate occasionally whenever I come across on any news articles. Disagreements aside, however, we never had – nor do we want – open confrontation or verbal clashes. Instead, I learn to understand their perspectives, and so do they. Some areas of contention are better left not debated, as I do not want these issues to wreak a significant havoc on our relationships.

And I am not myself a wise person per se. A sudden change of mindset and declaration of myself as a ‘feminist’ does not necessarily make myself suddenly wiser, nor does being none. My position on the concept of feminism, to be frank, remains undecided. I agree with many of the ideals being fought by this movement – equal wages, equal opportunity, equal access to education, healthcare, and other public services, as well as equal treatment – but I also have significant reservations about how certain people apply this concept – sexual liberation, abortion, and overly enforced political correctness in particular. These are the values that I personally oppose, but in the end, who am I to force the world to bend things according to my own conceptions?

This is why sometimes I am worried about social media nowadays. Algorithms are increasingly learning better about us, that they would simply present to us – either in our news feed in Facebook or better-optimized search results in Google – anything that would validate what we have read, or what we have searched. There come conservative bubbles, liberal bubbles, centrist bubbles, feminist bubbles, men’s right bubbles, sadomasochist bubbles, etc., and as though these bubbles are heading into a huge collusion. It becomes difficult to forge a dialogue, or a conversation, for people of contrasting viewpoints.

Still, as much reservation that I have, I pretty much agree with many of the values that are advocated by most feminist movements across the world. Issues already mentioned above, such as rape, gender wage gaps, glass ceilings, lack of equal access, or female genital mutilation, remain seriously concerning. This is where the movement is stepping in to continue their fight.

Moreover, as far from the envisioned ideals the current condition is, now is massively much better than in the past, and undeniably, much of the societal progress we are seeing taking place would not have been made possible without the presence of thought-provoking feminist thinkers. A woman who happened to live in both 1010 and 1050 may never expect the society to shift their attitudes about women; nor would most women living in both 1910 and 1950 have the same expectation, except for those living in more developed parts of the globe. However, those living in 2010 – and potentially up to 2050 – will see massive changes in our human society, almost universally spread across the planet. Technological advances are growing at an exponential rate, so fast that gender differences no longer matter. Women can learn to code, create their Arduino-based devices, do 3D-printing, or even build robots, as much as their male counterparts do, and with more open-access technologies available, everyone will soon be able to learn on their own. The chief scientist for United Arab Emirates’ official mission to explore Mars is a woman. Many of the engineers responsible for creating India’s low-cost rocket program to Mars are also women.

Sarah Amiri, chief scientist of Mars mission program for Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Do not judge a book by its cover: never mind the sari clothes, but these are Indian women engineers that have designed the low-cost satellites for exploration to Mars. Indeed, one can observe how even more colorful the celebration has been!

Also, much of the “political correctness” discourse – from my own opinion – has been disseminated largely by the Western media, and, ironically, most of the world happens to read Western-based media on a daily basis (myself included). My epistemological understanding is that if we look at different media sources, their perception, opinions, and attitudes about feminism would also largely differ. At least one illustration here would be Wangari Maathai: a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize awardee (quite honestly I always have skepticism about Nobel Peace Prize winners), she has helped to empower Kenyan women while simultaneously worked to preserve the country’s natural habitats. Indeed, I would highly recommend you to read Half The Sky, a very good book authored by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife – and also a fellow journalist, Sheryl WuDunn. This book offers a very broad perspective about efforts of female empowerment across various developing countries, ranging from microfinance to female education to efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation.

For me, the face of ‘feminism’ is not only about Emma Watson promoting #HeforShe, or female rights protest movements worldwide one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump (proof that I’m still reliant on Western-based media). It may feel so negligible, but do not forget that there are also millions of migrant workers – both male and female – who have left behind their families in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other developing countries in order to toil really hard in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. They sacrifice the time they could have spent with their parents, husbands, or their own children – oftentimes lasting for years – in order to earn enough incomes to fund their families, children’s education, or at least for their next offspring to afford a better future than they themselves could. Isn’t that feminism? What about hundreds of millions of migrant workers within China, who have left behind their hometowns, in order to work in factories, predominantly, to earn enough money for their families? And you assume that their parents are doing this willingly at the expense of the children’s mental well-being? Most people – except for an ‘exceptional few’ – would never do that. And can we expect ‘feminism’ itself to end such injustices? I am afraid not. The least we can do is to honor the sacrifices they have made for their next generations.

Beyond the feminism phenomenon, relatedly, another ‘shock’ the society is dealing and adjusting with is the fact that even the concept of ‘gender’ is becoming increasingly fluid. Our mental construction, our conscious understanding on the concept of ‘gender’ is increasingly freed of its binary nature, straight male or straight female. National Geographic, in one of its special editions titled ‘Gender Revolution’, identified no less than 21 different terms to describe gender. In particular, the “LGBT” phenomenon (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) is increasingly tolerated by many communities in different parts of the world. The half-empty picture is that over 172 countries have yet to legalize same-sex marriage; indeed, in many parts of this planet, that is punishable by death, imprisonment for life, or torture. The half-full picture, however, is that over 23 countries, since 2000, have given same-sex marriage a full legal blessing, mostly in North America and Western Europe. Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage based on its Constitutional Court ruling in May 2017. Can a gay or a lesbian, if he or she happened to live in 1000 and 1017, ever imagine such a ‘rapid’ development?

 

The progress, if we look at it from a broader space-time continuum (say the last 10,000 years of human civilization), is hugely exponential, but the fact that it is so rapid that as though it leaves almost no time for societies to adjust makes me concerned about the increasing ‘clash of values’ between people who are effervescently on-the-march progressive, those who are in the center, and those who want to retain the status quo, or maintain the current values. Again, as I have emphasized before, we have the problem of ‘bubbles’ due to how social media algorithms have reconfigured our thought patterns. And for me personally, as a person in the center, I am partly open to such possibilities, but I am also simultaneously worried about whether even I myself can fully cope with those massive, unexpected, fast-forwarding cultural and social shocks.

But, as much as I have a certain degree of reservation on feminism, I personally think that feminism itself can help dealing with the shock generated by gender fluidity that is gradually taking place in our society. Can we stop gender fluidity in the first place? I doubt it. Certain governments may impose authoritarian policies and enforce very tough measures, but I think this will only, in the long run, embolden – rather than permanently suppress – the sentiment that the authorities seek to remove. The question is whether we, in general, are ready for acceptance, no matter how painful it may be for our long-held traditional values, the values we have been inculcated in for most of our lifetime.

Even our concept of a ‘romantic relationship’ may – like it or not, sooner or later, depending on where you live – undergo a complete overhaul. The conventional ‘big picture’ is that a relationship has always been cast in this way: the male is normally portrayed as physically stronger than a woman, emotionally stoic, and has a tremendous responsibility to protect not only the female, but also a household in general. A male counterpart must be a breadwinner, while the female stays at home, nurturing children and doing household chores. Or, in a slightly revised ideal construction, women will do part-time jobs, all the while prioritizing the nurturing of the children, and completing household-related tasks, with men taking up full-time employment. Even if the big picture is increasingly rendered obsolescent in more and more parts of the world, it has not completely disappeared.

The complete overhaul could be that rather than the male being the sole ‘protector’, the approach may transition into one that has both the male and the female committed in protecting the relationship. Rather than the male always being expected to remain emotionally stiff, the counterparts may have to start being emotionally honest with each other. Rather than relying on the male alone to provide the income for a household, or a family, both the male and the female begin to financially support each other. Or that there may be no such obligatory need for a couple to get married to solidify their relationship. Most of these descriptions are becoming an increasingly common reality, but is our ideal construction of a romantic relationship evolving as well?

Or perhaps we can simplify, in the first place, what feminism actually is. I recounted a conversation I had with another friend of mine when we were going out for a dinner. She was asking me – in response to chat discussions we once exchanged in our Whatsapp group – about my stance, and I explained mine to her. And there she responded, “Well, for me, feminism doesn’t have to be very complicating: I would simply define it as the freedom for a woman to make her own choices.” I still remembered her line very vividly: it doesn’t have to be very intricately defined or preconceived. I personally would have a better consensus with her in defining this concept. When it comes to ‘making her own choices’, it can be limitless possibilities. A woman is free to pursue her education as high as she aspires to be; a woman can pursue a corporate career trajectory, hopefully to shatter the existing glass ceilings. A woman aspires to build robots. A woman who has no fear wearing bikinis in the public, but also has no fear of wearing religious attires (say, a Muslim veil). For a constantly changing world – and one that is changing at an accelerating pace, this will inevitably reshape the society of the future that we will be building and living in. Once again, however, the question remaining unanswered is how far the current society – a complicating mix of people who have lived for most of the 20th century, and those who are recently born, say, from 1980s to the beginning of 2010s – is prepared to withstand waves and waves of cultural shock. Can different generations in the current societal structure reconcile their views? Is the older generation willing to accept that certain changes are inevitable? And is the current generation also willing, to a limited extent, to at least understand the viewpoints of their elders?

Nearing the conclusion of this post, let me highlight this: changes are constant – as well as inevitable – within the human society. Many ideals remain yet to be accomplished, but the society itself remains a constant work in progress. Many of the values in the past generation were no longer existent in the current, and many of the current values will also be non-existent for the next generations. Probably the next generations, either in a not too far or distant future, will no longer categorize themselves based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, nationalities, or other defining social and physical attributes. The thing is, nobody can ever know what the future will look like. On the question about feminism, although I would consider myself to be on the same boat for some issues (namely equal opportunity, equal pay, or equal access to public services), there are certain values that I am not ready – nor am I willing – to embrace for now. I still oppose the concept of sexual liberation. I also disagree with the notion of abortion, unless the mother-to-be is in a very severe and threatening health condition that abortion becomes a Hobson’s choice. To a certain extent, I am still not willing to support overly celebratory events on themes like lesbian or gay pride events. But, in the end, who am I to ban these things? As much as I disagree with and oppose those conceptions, who am I to regulate other people’s bodies, or how they use their bodies to express themselves, or to tell them what are the ‘right methods’ or ‘proper interaction’? My disagreements simply stem from my partial unwillingness to fully embrace these values. You can even have your own choice to completely disregard my opinions.

But even individuals are not permanently dogmatic about their own thoughts. Societal attitudes shifted as waves of generations inherit this planet. What were once intolerable are now cause celebre; despite my concern about bubbles, as already mentioned in the first few paragraphs, I still believe that most people, having been exposed to something brand-new that is beyond their conventional understanding of social values and norms, will gradually learn about them, and probably will try to make some adjustments. Here, I emphasize that constant dialogue is needed to bridge the understanding gap. It is never easy to change people’s mindsets; that, oftentimes, can take generations. That’s the half-empty perspective. Yet, from the other half-full perspective, societal progress continues to take place. It’s just that the pace of change can be unpredictable, wildly varying within timelines, and within different communities across this planet.

Even I myself can hardly guarantee whether the same mindset I have right now will stick to me permanently. If I am, say the least, in a relationship with someone, my mindset may likely change. If I get married and/or have children – sons or daughters, my perspectives will undergo through some adjustments, too. Future events, depending on the extent of their personal impacts, may also shift my attitude from what I currently perceive at things. My point is, I simply keep myself open to possibilities. As constantly opposed as I am on certain values that I find disagreeable, my mindset may or may not change in the future. I would, in most circumstances, stick myself to the center. At the very least, I am open to constructive dialogue with people of various and opposing viewpoints, because everyone’s arguments – myself included – have their own pros and cons. At least with regard to definition, I would stick with my friend’s ‘freedom-to-have-a-choice’ alternate.

In the end, changes never come without friction. As waves of values diminish in one generation, they will be – gradually or rapidly – replaced with sets of new values by the next.

The emperor has no clothes, but remains an emperor

emperor

Did you still remember Hans Christian Andersen? Or, to go a bit deeper, have you ever read his short story titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? If you have neither read his stories nor known this person’s name (I assume most of you have), I suggest that we spend some time (re)reading his works. The Emperor’s New Clothes, in particular, is a title I think is worth reading. Allow me to summarize his story in case you haven’t read it, although some guys in Wikipedia have already done the plot summary.

Once upon a time, there lived a king who made wearing the best outfits and costumes his primary quotidian activity. Caring not so much about the kingdom and the people, but rather his appearance, or a very thick sense of fashion. One day, two weavers came in, claiming that they could build the best costumes for the emperor. So fantastic, so amazing, so awesome the designs were, that these outfits could only be seen by people who are intelligent, smart, and ‘at least not stupid’. The ruler took the weavers’ words so seriously that he entrusted them the new outfits. Anyone who could not view the emperor’s new clothes would be labelled ‘gravely foolish’.

The emperor finally wore these new clothes, but his ministers – and other subordinates – were so fearful of facing the reality: the clothes were so seriously microscopic that the emperor, apparently, wore nothing at all. But the ministers were also afraid of losing their jobs, or even their statuses, so they had no choice, but to lavish the emperor with praises. There the emperor embarked on his own parade, where every citizen marched to watch the procession, himself almost completely naked. People already knew the fact that the emperor was wearing ‘nothing’, but out of fear of being labelled ‘gravely foolish’, or hopelessly stupid, they would rather keep themselves in silence. A young child screamed out, but the procession went on. The emperor ‘probably’ knew about this, but, anyway, after all, the ruler prevails.

Obviously, there was almost no such historical example of leaders posing themselves literally naked; the moral lesson of the story is there, but its resemblance echoes for the duration of human civilization. We have seen great, wise leaders, but we have also seen bad, horrible leaders throughout our lifetime. What I honestly worry about is when a society, despite having understood some negative traits associated with the latter, would still cling their hopes on these people. Or when there are swindlers in the weavers’ clothing who deliberately exploit and manipulate the situation in such a condition that we ‘seemingly have no choice’ but to praise the naked emperor, given our personal fear at face value. Oftentimes we wish we could be like those young folks, but most of the time, a lot of us did not. Many factors hinder us, and adults understand that the truth is more complicating than what children usually perceive (this story is intended for children, by the way, but adults should learn, too). Still, ironically, we are simply afraid of telling the truth, when the truth itself, obviously, is already out there – and even visible for most of us.

It doesn’t matter whether we live in democracies, hybrid regimes, or dictatorships, but it is simply the reality of human society that oftentimes we are led by persons who have achieved tremendous feats for the greater good, or by others who have implemented disastrous policies. In a democracy, we can elect a person who gave us universal health care, mandatory minimum wages, multiple peace deals, LGBT rights, etc; on the other, we also have the similar ability to elect a demagogue, an outright racist, a bigot, or even a sexual predator to power. In a dictatorship, there were ‘benevolent tyrants’ who have led decades of economic miracle before democratization occurred; simultaneously, there were also tyrants that left a country in shambles, civil wars, or constant civil disorders. There have also been leaders that constantly give certain communities ‘pork’, in exchange of constant support to the leaders regardless of whatever wrongdoing the leaders have committed, be it a massive corruption scandal, serious human rights violations, or probably, something like sexual abuses, ties to mobsters, or racialized threats towards other communities that may be deemed soft spots or convenient targets. Look at history – not just the last two days – and we can see numerous of such illustrations.

History has seen such ups and downs in human society, but the good thing is that when mindsets change, people can change, too. We can choose to be like any other adults watching the naked emperor’s procession – all the while lavishing our pretentious praises at the ruler, or we can respond like the young boy in the story, and if need be, amplify his voices.

After all, I would remain an optimist. Probably a cautious one.

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.

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

On US election: some thoughts

us presidential candidate pixel art

Source: pixelfigures.tumblr.com

I’m not an American – first and foremost, but let me share some thoughts about what I perceive as one of the world’s most bizarre electoral competitions throughout human history (perhaps some exaggeration, but anyway).

Truth be told, most elections are ‘intense’. Intense in a way that society gets polarized for quite some time, some stuff (perhaps altercation) occurs, then a candidate with the biggest shares of votes wins, and gets elected, and society gets back to their normal ways of life, all the way until the next election is scheduled. In the US context, electoral history has been dominated by the two parties alone: Democrats and Republicans. The observable pattern – most of the time – is a Democrat administration, or when voters are dissatisfied with their performance, simply punish by voting them out of office, replacing them with a Republican one.

Despite some major historical events, one can say that the political phenomenon is almost reminiscent of that in ‘Groundhog Day’: support your candidate, get crazy about him (or her), engage in online debate or vitriol, and once election result comes out, things go back to normalcy.

This time, it is a truly bizarre event if I would have to be honest. Not sure if Elon Musk’s ‘universe-as-a-simulation’ argument is correct, but sometimes it makes you question whether the creator of this universe (whether it’s God, or a 17-year-old super-player playing a universe-sized Sim-like simulation) is running on a bad script. Nobody knows, but you are free to make your own ontological deduction.

We’ve got Donald J. Trump – whatever title you want to attach, I’ll let you decide. Racist? Check. Narcissist? Check. Braggadocio? Check. What’s his task? Making America great again. Up to this point, I can hardly decide whether he wants to ‘become president of the United States’ or ‘make America great again’. Here, up to this point, Trump has become the sole Muslim-baiting, Mexican-baiting, African American-baiting, women-baiting great wall-championing candidate for the Republican party, as the media likes to refer. Even more confounding for us, the rest of the world (and majority of Americans I bet), Trump is getting massive support from a significant portion of US population, mostly from the largely White working-class groups. Is he ‘funny’ or ‘dangerous’? He’s so ‘funny’ to the way he already gets the world ‘alarmed’ at his presidential prospect. Building a wall that borders Mexico, proposing a ban on ‘Muslim’ immigration to the US from countries harboring terrorists (my country is one of them, although I am myself ethnic Chinese and ‘Buddhist’), imposing 45% tariffs from imported products from China, and putting global economy at stake by proposing ‘US debt default’ (the art of the deal, huh??), refusing to honor decades-long security commitments with its allies (NATO, Japan, South Korea, etc), and ‘pivoting away from the whole world to make America great again’. What I’m scared is his ideas, but what I’m scared even more is the way he has repeatedly flip-flopped his statement; saying one idea is ‘great and awesome’, only to end up saying ‘the idea is horrible, terrible, and dangerous’. The worse thing is he is still garnering significant support, and that shows no signs of abating. Reality is sometimes weirder than our imagination.

And then, all the way, we’ve got Hillary (insert whatever you want, ‘Killary’, Hillary-Monsanto-Goldman Sachs-TPP-Clinton, etc). A more sane and politically experienced candidate – having been in US Senate and being the most well-traveled Secretary of State), my opinion towards her is that she is hardly different from any other politicians. She flips-flops (say, on TPP), gets paid huge sums of money by Wall Street (you know, the big banks), and has close ties with some of the world’s nastiest dictatorships. More recently, she self-clones herself to ‘somewhat’ look like Bernie Sanders. I do not say she is a good candidate, either, given some of the existing controversies in her past track records. But, again, as a politician (and just like any other typical politicians), she is the one that can make huge promises, compromises with all sides, and delivers a portion of them. She envisions herself as ‘de facto continuing Obama’s third term’, only that she will be more hawkish in her foreign policy (as already demonstrated in Libya, and probably Syria should she get elected). You hate her simply because ‘you hate her’, but this is all the more given the fact that she is a centrist, and if one looks into the median-voter theorem (one of the most common theories in political science), the one that can stay in the median position is the one most likely to win the elections, because people would prefer ‘status-quo’.

Of course people had expectations of Bernie Sanders (and indeed very high). Despite his apparent failure to become the presidential candidate from Democratic Party, it is remarkable that he could build such a huge appeal within a time span of less than a year (ironically, so did Trump). Using his credential as a ‘democratic socialist’ – in fact I would consider him more as a European-style social democrat, he championed the ideas of free college, universal and free healthcare, and all the measures to force the ‘one-percent’ to pay taxes and support the poor, low-income, and working class in the United States. His zeal – and his enthusiasm – captured so many people’s attention, and even myself. To some degree, I actually felt the Bern. There’s always a but, nevertheless. I truly admire his ideals, but if I have to be honest (especially to Bernie bros or Bernie-or-bust people), Bernie’s Achilles’ heel has been that he has yet to detail his policy proposals on what precise measures he’s going to do to achieve his goals. It’s like he’s dreaming big – and extremely big, but he seems ‘stuck’ in continuously touting his dreams. I also have thoughts circulating in my mind that a Bernie Sanders presidency may struggle to put forward his ideas – especially amid the Congress, dominated by tons and tons of special interests, all of which may eventually force him to compromise and sacrifice some of his ideals. Unlike Hillary, Bernie seemingly does not appear ‘ready’ to become unpopular. Don’t we all realize that politicians are people who know when to attract popularity, and when to enact unpopular policies? I am trepidated by the prospects of a Bernie presidency not because of his ideals that will threaten economic stability, but rather his potential ‘inability’ to do so due to the tough reality of politics – forcing him to confront his own Icarian tragedy. Still, with the fact that Bernie is so close to the ‘core’ of the Democratic Party right now, to some extent this has also forced Hillary to adopt policy positions that are leaning, somewhat, to the left-wing of politics (although I may doubt her not flip-flopping), and largely changed the landscape of American politics these days – altogether with Trump.

Now the real conundrum is Trump. His sensationalist acts, his tweets (which look more like tweet-bots), his arrogance, and his extremely unpredictable temperament could have been ‘acts of suicide’ in other places. But, he’s gaining more popularity than ever. Trump supporters remain largely committed to support him. You may call them idiots, stupid, low-IQ, mentally ill, jerks, retards, paranoia-laden people, but the reality is much more complicating, and it is such over-generalization that continues to perpetuate why this guy could still maintain a huge, staunchly support base. With the fact that a huge bulk of his supporters are working-class people, perhaps I could show you one graph prepared by Branko Milanovic shown below:

chart_of_the_century

Source: World Bank

Other than the world’s poorest population, the ‘biggest losers’ in globalization are the middle- and working-class population in the high-income economies, especially US – one of the most unequal countries among OECD countries. Trump phenomenon is not itself a unique phenomenon alone; Brexit, the rise of far-right populist movements, the resurgence of ultra-nationalism, are moments that can be very easily exploited by political Machiavellians, agitators, and demagogues (and I do not deny that Trump is just one of them). Also, it is not that Trump supporters are ‘blind’ of his wrongdoings: they know his misdeeds, but their assumption is: “better the devil you know”. As the US election in 2016 is one that pits two unpopular candidates, voters have only one option: select the one that is ‘less evil’ than the other. Trump supporters argue that they fully understand the ‘devil’ in Trump, but at least he’s ‘open’ about it, and they have this suspicion of ‘Clinton’, all the secret agenda, conspiracy theories, and stuff. Such vulnerability is a very huge rabbit hole that can be ceaselessly exploited by fellow demagogues to amplify their voices. Most people on the other side (and not necessarily Clinton supporters) fail to notice such pattern, and this is where they continue to chastise Trump supporters as being on the categories I highlight above. I am very sure there are Trump supporters who are not racists, bigots, or even from ethnic minorities (although he may say some bad stuff). In short, there is almost no ‘culture of dialogue’ between the two sides, and no wonder polarization becomes increasingly uncompromising and intense.

Part of this strange phenomenon, also, lays the blame on the intellects. Does a professor teaching in Harvard, or Stanford, or Princeton, understand the feelings of a blue-collar worker in Mississippi or Alabama? I am not saying that all faculty members are elitists (note that a huge portion of them are active on projects that try to empower communities), but given the growing inequalities in income, wealth, and economic and social opportunities, this is also another possible pathway that can lead to the rise of demagogues, regardless if a country is already a well-established democracy, or if a country is already high-income or not. The ‘understanding gap’ between the intellects and the rest of the country is huge – especially with the ivory-tower tendencies of the former – but I think I need to devote one special blog post that explains ‘the failure of intellectuals’.

This election, therefore, will be very vividly watched across the world. Whoever becomes the president – either it’s Trump or Clinton – will determine the future trajectory of the United States, and the international order as well. In spite of numerous existing domestic problems, US remains the world’s largest economy, and it remains a key determinant to stabilize the global order. The commander-in-chief whose credential is ‘the big bro in the Apprentice’ is not the one that will necessarily keep the order in shape; Clinton is by no means popular, either, but she understands what being a politician is – when to become ‘popular’, and when to enact unpopular policies. US’ global image has improved under Obama administration (after its notorious association with Iraq War under George W. Bush government), although it is not flawless. If Trump wins, it may be either the global order is at stake (if he is consistent with his big ideals, which I already doubt them given his own flip-flopping), or that many countries will simply ‘stay away’ from US. In the context of Asia, most countries – rather than risking war with China and asking US for security guarantee – will, no matter how unpopular it is, choose to cozy up to Beijing, given their substantial economic leverage.

The whole essence of this election is neither to ‘dump Trump (and his supporters)’ nor ‘lock her up’ (in the context of Clinton). It is about the next 4 years where US will go, and what the future generations will learn about political processes in their country. While obviously this is an unpopular election, as a non-American, I appeal to people there to please build up a ‘culture of dialogue’ between different political spectrum. For the rest of the world, I would say that we also need to prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’ in the future. We may possibly witness big changes in the international order, but we don’t know.

Guest post: in the name of ‘law’, or ‘justice’, or whatsoever?

iustitia

 

*** This is a guest post by my close friend, Edward Tanoto. He is currently studying business in, you know, the university he already mentioned in the following paragraph. Feel free to agree or disagree with his thought, but as I have emphasized in previous posts, let us respect each other’s opinions, and if you find yourself in absolute, complete disapproval, let us agree to disagree.

 

In The Name of “Justice”

It was February 29, 2016 – it was the first day of my first semester in University of Melbourne and for me! Walking the footpath to class, I was excited. The first lecture will be on law – on how JUSTICE can be enforced through the rules of conduct. Being a mystery-novel addict, I could hardly wait until I finally manage to dive into the core principle of the democratic judicial system. The clock was ticking, the minutes grew unbearable. Finally, the lecturer came and it was about to begin. “I bet she’ll say something inspiring!” was what I thought. When the professor finally started talking, she said “I’d like to first correct the one assumption you guys might carry. Decisions made in the court according to the rules of law DON’T HAVE TO BE JUST. A court is not a place to seek and serve justice.”…. so much for the inspiring quote.

Some of you, like me, might be asking yourselves “If the law is not intended to enforce justice, then what does it stand for?” The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines law as ‘a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognised as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.’ Put simply, a law stands for a PHYSICAL or VIRTUAL BODY, delivering the ORDER of that body, enforced by MEMBERS who SUBSCRIBE to that order toward the PARTIES INTENDED of that order. All four elements are essential for any law to take effect. We shall not delve deeper into these different aspects as it is unrelated to the purpose of our discussion. However, notice that the notion of JUSTICE is not found among those 4 essential elements. Why is this so?

Before I begin, however, I would like to simplify the contention of the law discussed. This is to prevent bumping into major differences between the different laws enforced by different body. I shall be expounding on a law that stands for a FREE body, delivering the order of COMMON LAW, enforced by the PARLIAMENTARY LEGISLATION and intended toward ITS CITIZENS. Points 3 and 4 are specific to this order but point 3 is applicable to other rules of conduct.

  1. The core principle of law is enforcing order, not justice.

This simple notion is similar to the age-old argument of democracy vs communism. We are however, not interested in the different ideology each postulates. We are more interested in the different types of market offered by each of the two. The open market in democracy is adopted to effectively allocate resources and maximize total welfare of the society (efficiency). The centrally planned market in communism is meant to distribute resources equally to the society thus giving everybody a fair share of the economic pie (equity).

Much like the market scenario, the law is mainly concerned with maintaining the status quo as it is, assuming the status quo offers the highest good to the society. The law thus becomes relatively inert and unchangeable. The certainty that comes from this is important to law as it gives assurance and predictability that the same principle will hold true in the future. This assurance subsequently promotes order as people come to associate certain behaviour with certain punishments or rewards by the law.

Justice, however, is concerned with adjusting the law to suit the circumstance at the time of occurrence. As various factors may contribute in causing different breaches of the law, it is then important to adjust the law to suit those different elements. While this is a sound argument, it is not the main concern of the law. Even though adjustments can be made to adapt with the circumstance, it is generally difficult to persuade the law to excuse or change its established rule to suit the interest of the moment. This adjustment falls under ‘equity’ category and is only considered after determining the type of breach according to the existing law. Put it in another way, order reigns supreme over justice.

  1. Justice is relative, but the law is certain.

Do you think a thief should be spared? What if he steals to feed their family? Or to cure his sick daughter? What if he accidentally murders someone during the conduct?

Each of you may have different answers and suggest different degree of consideration toward the thief. That is perfectly normal and understandable. It is also, however, the biggest flaw of justice – everybody has a different notion of it. What holds true to you may not necessarily hold true to others. It is impossible to accommodate the law to suit the preference of the individuals. For this reason, it is equally impossible to enforce justice to everyone. The law, therefore, is not able to plant its root on justice simply because it lacks the one most integral aspect of the law – certainty.

Of course, it is not possible to get an accurate assessment of an occurrence of breach without looking at all the contributing factors that give rise to the offense. When traced to a reasonable extent, backtracking is able to pinpoint and help determine the degree of breach and the reason of breach – both important aspects of a criminal investigation. However, there is always a limit. This may vary among countries but it is generally traced only up to the point where the event has a “significant” role in contributing to the breach. Again, there exists the possibility that some limit may be premature and may subsequently obscure investigation to the root of the problem, serving only partial justice.

Yet this is not a problem for the law. It is only concerned with preserving certainty and order in the society. So long as it remains that way, no extra energy will be wasted to further their find – at least not until the next related breach.

  1. The law is made by consensus, not individual interest.

As previously explained, it is impossible to cater to each of our own notion of justice. Hence, in a democratic system, rules of conduct are made through parliamentary procedures and consensus.

Under the common law, a Bill is first suggested by members of the legislature and told to the Senate. Should the Senate vote to approve it, a draftsperson will then draft out the Bill. The draft is then read to the members of the House of Origin. A debate occurs and if the Bill is voted and approved, it will go to the House of Review. The members of the House read and debate over the Bill, pointing out necessary changes when seen fit. After all the changes, the House will then vote on the Bill. If the majority concurs, it becomes an Act and is passed for Royal Assent. The rest of the process, is based on our shared experience.

Notice that the law consists of (at minimum) three votes – those by the Senate, the House of Origin, and the House of Review (any amendments must again be voted on when finished). In each of these votes, decision by the majority will be the one passed into law. This poses a problem – what about the minority? A law that bans face covering will not bid well with pious Muslim women (a reference to the French parliamentary decision in 2010). Similarly, a law that requires every person to subscribe to a religion is unjust to free thinkers and atheists (a reference to Indonesia’s 1st principle of Pancasila and the subsequent Clause 28(e) of The Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia of 1945; in fact, atheism is actually quite a taboo topic in this country).

From a utilitarian point of view, there may be security benefits conferred to the public by either removing the cover or requiring your religions stated on IDs. It may make it harder to hide your real identity. However, it also erodes certain religious values of Islamic belief itself, or for the case of religions-on-ID discourse, the sense of hypocrisy that many of us feel religion is a personal matter, not something that state ought to intervene.

How much must the minority bend to the will of the majority? While the answer to this is open for discussion, it purports the fact that it can be hard for justice to find its place in the law.

Despite all its apparent bleakness, the law is not necessarily fixed for good. In common law, equity exists alongside the law and trial by the jury exists alongside trial by the judge. We have come to recognise that various circumstances can give rise to certain offences. The law may be stubbornly fixed, but given the right reason, it can make an exception.

Themis, or the Greek equivalent of Iustitia (Lady Justice) is depicted wearing a blindfold while carrying a sword and a balance. The trinity symbolises decisions and penalties based on the objectivity of evidence and reason, impartial to subjectivity and emotion. However, let us also not forget that she is also blind. Perhaps it is time for her to discard the blindfold and “see” the law as how it fits with time and changes.

Traveling and attitude

just sitting

 

I know it sounds horrible for most people, but I just wanna be honest here: I am not interested in traveling.

Yes, those last six words.

I have betrayed my ancestors – and my very distant ancestors – whose survival has depended on walking, and sailing, thousands of miles across continents, only to find out this poor boy of theirs, sitting surrounded by cubicles (laptop, with research papers beside me, table, and a wooden wall), is going to a layer of existence where it’s untouchable, but it’s everywhere, and is air-like: Internet.

 

Not that my life is completely miserable though. Throughout my lifetime (I’m now 21), I have been to 7 countries – or I should say 6 countries and 1 special political entity, which I listed here:

  1. Malaysia (last time: May 2013, been to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca)
  2. Singapore (last time: October 2010, been to downtown mostly)
  3. Cambodia (last time: June 2015, to Phnom Penh)
  4. China (last time: April 2014, been to Shenzhen and Nanjing)
  5. United States (last time: April 2016 (this year!), only to Houston)
  6. United Arab Emirates (just for transit to US)
  7. Hong Kong (studying in HKUST as of August 2013)

I don’t call it travel, however. I would rather say most of them – except for the trips to Cambodia and US – are annual family trips, lasting for a week (sometimes almost two), and the only aim is relaxation (although we ended up mostly tired). I went to Cambodia for a global health project, and to US for a related global health competition held in Rice University.

In fact, one rather heavy-hearted truth I must confess is that the reason I can continue my studies in this university is the last 4 years spent by my family not going overseas. The last overseas family trip we had was one to Hong Kong, in August 2012, a year precisely before I ended up pursuing my university education here, most of which is supported by my parents’ financing and partially through university scholarships.

Is that why I lose my interest in traveling? While you and I see the correlation – and indeed there’s a correlation, it’s not so much a causality, either.

It’s inevitable that money is one big factor diluting this curiosity of exploring the world – especially given the depreciation of most currencies across the world in the last 2 years. Indonesian rupiah, the richest currency in the world (simply because we have so many zeros), has seen its value depreciated more than 30% within the same period, and the climax was that it almost reached 50% as of mid-2015 before it appreciated. That, in one aspect, has been a major headache not just for me and my family – especially as we are saving a lot to support my younger brother’s future university education, but also for some other Indonesians studying here. Nonetheless, one can argue back, and ask: “What if the currency never weakens, do you want to travel?” Still, the interest is not there yet.

The actual causality, I would argue, is the challenge of adapting to life and getting accustomed to a huge diversity of values in Hong Kong.

I have spent 18 years of my life living in Medan, my hometown, and also Indonesia’s fourth largest city, before coming to Hong Kong. If I could reflect back in the last three years, the biggest challenge is adapt to social standards here, excluding the fact that with Hong Kong as a global city (or so they say), it’s got people from hundreds, and hundreds, of nationalities, each of whom carries norms, values, and mindsets that might not be always suitable to the values I have grown accustomed to while back in my hometown.

At its simplest, let me mention HKUST as a microcosm. I can’t deny that it’s an amazing university – we have people, either full-time or exchange-in students, coming all around the world. Indeed, I am even quite proud to say I have befriended quite a lot of people from various backgrounds in addition to Indonesians alone – Hong Kong locals, Mainland Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Indians, Americans, other Southeast Asians, fellows from European countries, some from Middle East, and the list goes on – and discussed various issues, in-depth, with them to understand better about global affairs. In spite of the three years well spent here, I have always been faced with such existentialist-themed questions.

  1. Many of my friends are exchange-in students, and they ‘only’ stay for either a semester or a year. Is true friendship that kinda fast to forge?
  2. Overcoming culture shock is another.

Talking about the second matter, overcoming culture shock is the biggest impediment. Even as I approach my final year pretty soon, there are still quite some aspects that I am still struggling to understand from either local folks or some fellow foreign students, and to a certain degree, even fellow Indonesians. How am I going to create a positive attitude out of traveling when I haven’t fully ‘recovered’ from culture shock after three years studying abroad?

Another reason is what I can say as ‘settle-down attitude’. Again, this is my personal opinion. Having no interest in travel does not mean I will stop visiting countries forever. I still aim for postgraduate studies in US (yeah, ‘American dream’), but based on my experiences of already living here for three years, I have learned a lot about the attitude of settling down in a place and getting used to the pace of daily life here (in spite of constant ebbs and flows of culture shock). Immersing oneself in a place is not as simple as traveling to 10, 20, 30, or even 50 countries alone, let alone an annual one-week overseas trip; it takes quite a considerable amount of effort – and time – to completely blend in a brand-new environment, in a wholly new culture. Being here for three years, I have felt very comfortable with what Hong Kong has to offer (despite constant shouts of housing and inequality issues), but I do realize that this place itself is not going to be an end goal of my life journey. Which country I will eventually permanently settle? Will it be US, or will it be going back to Indonesia? Your guess is as good as mine.

Also, when I go to other countries, the constant feeling that lies in my head is this: “Is there something useful I can always do?” This response may make you think I sound like an overworked jerk, but unless there is something really useful or what I am really passionate about (research projects, deployment of new technologies, competitions, but not voluntouring), I will not be really trying to get myself into those places. Why sightseeing alone? Except for differences in building styles, historical experiences, income levels, infrastructure quality, social and cultural norms, food, infrastructure, and availability of people and goods, people everywhere are just the same. They live as we do, they work as we do, they eat as we do, especially with the advent of globalization. Again, this doesn’t mean I encourage you and myself to stop going overseas. It’s just that we may have different expectations. I care about other countries’ history, but unless there is something important (and money is one thing), I will not be really there.

Furthermore, we’ll just acknowledge that everyone has his or her own peculiarity. People will assume that I am weird due to my disinterest in travel. It’s the same thing, either, for some people like me to judge those having traveled to 30, 40, 50, or maybe 100 countries. Some will argue that lack of travel causes less world peace due to low understanding of other cultures; I would refute back and ask, “Where is the supporting evidence?” It may be true that some correlation exists, but it doesn’t always mean causality. Some people, having lived extensively in many countries, will in the end stick to people they are most comfortable with (mostly the same country) and will always remain as narrow-minded about the world as their exclusivity implies. Either having been to dozens of different places or simply staying in your hometown or home state does not necessarily make you a better person. That’s where we can see the differences between ‘well-traveled tourists’ and ‘well-traveled travelers’. Others, probably never leaving 100 miles beyond their hometowns their whole lifetime, would just find solace through the conveniences they have been familiar with all their lives. Does one simply have to go through the countries only to experience the cultures themselves, discounting the fact that they have families to support, and lack of money is another thing? At least books can be either a supplementing or complementing alternative. (I choose this because it depends on how you interpret your choices) Everyone is unique on his or her own, so being less judgmental actually reduces these gaps.

Last but not least, I am a homeward-bound person. As I only take an annual vacation (during winter), the only thing that lies in my head is going back to my hometown. It is dilapidated, no doubt about that; crime is high, yes it’s true; transport is very uncomfortable and unruly, especially. But what becomes inevitable is how that city, that poor sweet city of mine, has become part of my identity, particularly after the experience of overseas study. The only thing that lies in my head is to reunite with my family, that’s all. For the rest of every university year, I have been studying and working hard enough, and again, the attitude of traveling after all the exasperation is just not there. I would still choose to come back to my hometown and stay for a month, despite the discomfort compared to everything one has in Hong Kong.

(Once again, I have to put a disclaimer to say that this doesn’t stop me from wanting to visit other countries.)

I would have to say that it is very fortunate the university I study in actually encourages people to explore the world through programs like exchange-out, gap year, or gap semesters. A lot of my friends have taken these chances, and traveled to dozens of countries (still, mostly in Europe, North America, and not so commonly fellow Asian states). It is undeniable exchange offers numerous benefits, but again, what I can advise here, from someone who has no interest in travel but sees the benefits in it, is the matter of ‘attitude’. I neither encourage nor discourage you from traveling, but at least get yourself to think these questions. Are you ready for the discomfort of constantly moving places? Are you willing to learn and immerse yourself in other cultures, and adopt their values? And are you ready to spend, especially with the fact that most of our university education is from our parents’ money? If you are prepared, then the benefits are there for you. If you don’t, travel ideals themselves are just not suitable for you. Some people are ‘destined’ to explore, some simply will find solace in the places they stay in. Let’s respect each other from that regard (or at least learn to agree to disagree).

The best thing about 21st century is that people are more free to define how they are going to live their lives (and I do cherish in this regard). If there’s just this ecstatic impatience to explore the world, just do it. Otherwise, just enjoy all that we have.