Thursday, 15 December 2011

An Alternative Common Sense

Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity
Ha-joon Chang

London: Random House, 2007

“Meat imports are restricted…, which not only benefits local farmers but also inspecting firms… The export of raw rattan is about to be prohibited, which will benefit the rattan industry… Businesses have to give priority to local products…”

These are only some of the arguments put forward by Hal Hill and Monica Wihardja in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, ringing alarm bells about anti-reformist forces in the Indonesian Government. They argued that in spite of the upgraded investment ratings and political stability, the economic picture in Indonesia is slowly turning for the worse. That contrary to its liberal face, Indonesia is actually exercising policies favoring domestic production.

I have to admit, I’m a rookie when it comes to economic analysis. But I have this gut feeling that all those supposed evils mentioned by Professor Hill and Ms. Wihardja are not necessarily all that bad. I may be wrong here, but if a policy benefits local industries, shouldn’t that benefit the Indonesian people? And shouldn’t that mean more than the argument about being “reform” or “anti-reform”, whatever those two labels are supposed to mean these days?

These were some of the thoughts that kept on surfacing in my head as I read with much interest Professor Ha-joon Chang’s “Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity”. Going against the tide prevalent in a world dominated by free trade, comparative advantage, and other neo-liberalist values, Professor Chang’s book is an alternative account on development economics.

An established scholar currently teaching at Cambridge University, Professor Chang provides a fresh look on the state of today’s international economics. Professor Chang argues that while supposedly wanting to bring prosperity to developing countries, the world’s wealthy nations and major financial institutions (the ‘Bad Samaritans’) are in fact enlarging the gap between the developed and developing hemispheres. In May 2011, he was invited by President Yudhoyono to talk in front of the Indonesian Cabinet on lessons learned from the Korean economic development.

Of course, we’ve heard criticisms of liberal trade policies from many camps. But it’s always enlightening to learn more about them from a well established economist, and not some leftist demonstrator on the street, aggressively chanting the evils of globalization, wearing baklavas, fist punching in the air. It’s also stimulating to digest these well-researched, well-written criticisms not from a narrow, ultra-nationalist perspective, which is often regressive, thus resulting in isolationism and fear of the outside world.

Professor Chang suggests the need for people, particularly policymakers, in the developing world to carefully reconsider the tune of neo-liberalism that we’ve become used to listening. A tune which has been played so often, and so intense, that it has become entrenched in our minds as “the truth”. How the world today is so much engulfed in the unchallenged virtues of free trade and globalization. A condition in which any alternative tune proposed would be regarded simply as “backward”, or “anti-reformist”.

The book induces the reader to question the supposed superiority of notions such as comparative advantage and tariff reductions, particularly vis-à-vis the interests of developing countries. It forces us to reconsider the values of “infant industry theory” (developed by none other than Alexander Hamilton, the initiator of America’s industrialization and economic development in the 1800s) and the private vs. public enterprise argument (which overemphasizes on the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of public enterprises, while failing to consider similar conditions plaguing the private sector). It even delves into a discussion on corruption, and whether it destroys a national economy as much as the ‘Bad Samaritans’ would like us to believe.

Professor Chang does not one-sidedly criticize globalization, for this is exactly what many critics have often been guilty of. He gives credit where credit is due, describing that free trade is indeed beneficial for countries whose industries and comparative advantage have evolved. But for many developing countries, lacking in industrial capacity and relying too much on natural resources export, free trade only condemns them to a life of a second-class citizen in today’s international community.

In particular, Professor Chang criticizes the double standard eschewed by many developed, western countries. “Virtually all successful economies, developed or developing, got to where they are through selective, strategic integration with the world economy, rather than through unconditional global integration”. The United States was the most protectionist country up until the end of the Second World War, when their industrial supremacy had become unchallenged. So was Japan, when it strengthened its industrial base, at a time when its biggest export item was silk. And Korea did it too, when in the 1960s it fueled funds into its steel industry, which at the time, was completely non-existent.

We then ask the question, why are we being labeled as anti-reform when we try to emulate exactly all models of economic success since the time of Henry VII’s England? Are Indonesians today genuinely happy about being where they are in terms of economic growth, in particular economic production? Are we liberalizing our economy for want or for need? Or are we simply being bullied around by the developed world?

In the words of Professor Chang, “free market economists would argue, Mozambicans should be realistic and not mess around with things like cars (let alone hydrogen fuel cells!); instead they should just concentrate what they are already (at least ‘comparatively’) good at – growing cashew nuts”. We need to change this perspective, because if Japan had stayed with what it was good at (i.e. making silk), then we’d be deprived of the Hondas, Toyotas, and Suzukis roaming our streets today.

These are some thoughts worth considering, especially if we are prone to accepting opinions such as Professor Hill and Ms Wihardja’s as the norm. Have we accepted unconditional trade liberalization as common sense, thus labeling alternative perspectives as regressive and backward? If so, then maybe it is time for us to question, and even challenge, such norms, thus altering what's previously accepted as common sense.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Tiger in Us

The Tiger’s Wife
Tea Obreht
New York: Random House, 2011

As I finished the last lines of “The Tiger’s Wife”, I was engulfed with a sense of envy. Envious at Tea Obreht, for being so gifted with words – layer upon layer of words – which come together as a beautiful, intricate, and deep narrative, rich in imagery, emotions, folklore, and the many ways we as humans relate with our lands, families, friends, and nations. The way our pasts effect and shape us. And the different ways we approach life, and of course, death.

“The Tiger’s Wife” centers on Natalia, and the stories she tells about her grandfather. As a young, idealist doctor, Natalia searches to find out more about the mysterious passing away of his grandfather – also a doctor – and his fascinating past. A person portrayed by Natalia as someone who reminded me of the movie “Big Fish”. A person who is philosophical, principled, and surrounded by an idealism that is fairy tale-like.

The narrative weaves the past and present seamlessly, creating not only a two-dimensional tapestry, but something more like a three-dimensional quilt, made up of different materials, textures and sensations. In the end, the entire 338-page book feels like multi-layered fable, so satisfying. I have to say, it is quite warming to the heart.

Aside from the great doctor (the grandfather), characters like the deathless man, Darisa the Bear, a great human-eating tiger, and of course, the tiger’s wife feature strongly. Characters that are more urban legend-like than the regular people we see on the streets. There are also snapshots of an elephant walking the empty morning streets, and the search for a human heart buried in an orchard. Everything seems so surreal, yet feels so real.

And for me, I enjoyed immensely the historical and geographical background on which Obreht imposed these characters and stories: the Balkan region that continuously alternates between war and peace, misery and glee, destruction and reconstruction, despair and hope. Each one waiting to take over the other in a vicious circle.

In such a subtle way, Obreht laments the follies of mankind and the absurdity of conflict and war. Her story is about the common people, who suffer from prejudice and our constant fear of the unknown. About the things that are often left unsaid, and those that shouldn’t remain unsaid.

“…the cease fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. The fight is endless…”

The story, I find, is also about uncovering and realizing “the tiger” within each and one of us. The fighting spirit, the survival virtues, the noble principles, the great fear in every one of us. It is about the way that we deal with that tiger, and maybe even becoming it, in its more benign form. About coming to terms with ourselves.

How I envy Tea Obreht for these words…

Thursday, 24 November 2011

On a Good Morning...


On 21 November, around 2:30 in the morning, my world changed forever... for the better.

When the doctor opened the doors to the operation room and revealed a glass box, my heart skipped a few beats. “Congratulations, she’s a beautiful baby girl”, the doctor said with a smile, still in her green surgery kit. I looked beyond her, into the glass box on stilts and wheels, and there she was, the most precious thing ever.

Only a minute into this world, and Gaia Veronika was already fast asleep, probably tired from the journey. Still covered by traces of the fluid she had been swimming in for almost 9 months, she stuck her tongue out, and mumbled something incomprehensible.

“Hi honey”, I said as I brought my face closer to hers. But there was no longer a voice. Not even a whimper. Just the soft sound of her breathing, softness of her skin and hair. Just the warmth, as if the sun radiated from inside her. Just her, and me.

Comfort, relief, excitement, anxiety… Only one other person had ever made me feel that way. And how appropriate that Gaia Veronika came from the womb of that same person, that pretty Nansy I met on Swanston Street more than 8 years ago. How my life changes, swings, and revolves at the command of these two people.

Gaia, the Greek Goddess of earth; Veronika, latin for “she who brings victory”. Those two words will stay on her for her entire life. Those two words will be her. Those two words too will be the reason to give all of my life to her.

Welcome to this world, my dear. May you grow to be a beautiful, intelligent, strong, friendly, and principled person. May you have dreams and have the power to pursue them. May you fly high, walk far, and swim deep in this earth that is you. I will be there for you, and so will your mom and family.

Learn to love, learn about love. Taste all, waste nothing. Try all colors in life. But as much as the red and blue of Barca may grow on you, may there only be two colors that live in your heart forever… the red and white.

I love you, unconditionally.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Selfless Account

Book Review
Please Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin

Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

My mom comes from a small village near Palembang, South Sumatra. My grandpa was a coffee farmer who was also known as one of the local "tough guys". Life in her village was probably difficult back then (I've actually never been there), but my two siblings and I only knew about the good memories mom had had as a child. It was maybe a way for mom to make sure that her children would grow up only surrounded by things and thoughts that are nice and pleasant.

Mom raised us with unconditional love. With dad being the typical traditional father who wanted little to do with running the household and the family, mom played so many roles for us. Whenever we needed anything, we only needed to turn around, and sure enough, mom was always there.

Mom provided for us even when our demands went beyond the capacity of dad's civil servant salary. When we wanted McDonalds more than twice a week, she would learn how to replicate the taste of them McPatties at home. When we wanted toys, she would caress our heads and said "Next month, my dear, when dad gets his salary, okay?" As boys, my brother and I were careless with our clothes; mom was always there to mend them. And when it came time for us to be schooled, she gave up many of her jewelries so that my brother and I could continue our stay in Vancouver, Canada.

Sometimes we misunderstood her, mistaking her love for what felt like constraints and restrictions. Sometimes we quarelled with her, assuming that she was less educated, and thus, less enlightened in her decisions. And sometimes we take for granted the small things, the little magic that she did for us, like the tasty chicken sandwiches that popped up weekly in our lunch bags.

These were the thoughts that hovered over my head throughout the time I was reading Kyung-Sook Shin’s "Please Look After Mom".

The book took some time to grow on me (around 20 pages into it) probably because it's written differently from Haruki Murakami's “Norwegian Wood”, the last novel before this one. But then I got used to the style, and even liking the narrative. I became quiet infused in the story, the complex and intricate ties among the many characters of the novel.

Having just spent 8 days in Korea, some of the places mentioned in the book reminded me of nice memories of that trip. But, this book actually tells a sad story. Not the kind of sad story that makes you depressive suicidal and all. But the kind that takes us on a journey of self-reflection. The kind that makes you reconsider some of the less appreciated things in life; those people you often take for granted, whose sacrifices have often gone unnoticed.

When Chi-hon, one of the main characters of the book, was told that her mom had gone missing in downtown Seoul, we see the unravelling of the secrets and feelings that connect the Park family as one. The search for mom, and the lives of the Parks became a microscope through which we observe family relations in modern day South Korea. Told from the perspectives of Chi-hon, her older brother and younger sister, dad, and mom, the book gave a glimpse into the ties linking each and one of the members of this family. Ties that are changing in a changing world.

I'm not a Korea expert, but I don't think I'd be completely wrong to suggest that the story is not only about a Korean family, but also about Korea itself. A country that has gleefully embraced the 21st Century's modernity. A country so busy with its ambitious goals of progress and globalism that it's beginning to loose some of its traditional roots. A country which is rapidly taking for granted the hardships and gloominess of the past, only to be reminded of them when a shocking event happens.

In the book, that shocking event came in the form of the disappearance of Chi-hon's mom, which caused regret and severe loss among those around her. Chi-hon and her siblings began to realize how little love they have returned to their mom. Mom, who has selflessly raised the entire family without paying attention to her own well-being. Mom, who defended and fought for her children in the face of anything imaginable. How they wish to see their mom again and say all the things that should have been said, do the things that have always been requested by their mom.

Indeed, there were parts of the book where the author pulled on too much of the sentimentality strings. It was as if the author was trying really hard to make the reader cry. I was taken on a roller coaster of feelings: sadness, guilt, anguish, loss, helplessness. A bit like a Korean drama, I should say.

But somehow, the story is believable, and I took everything in like a nice plate of bulgogi. If anything, I think many of us Asians would be able to relate to the story as well as the message behind it. And although one may not be able to see it, there is hope resonating towards the end of the story.

The book brought up strong feelings in me. Each time I put the book down during breaks in between reads, I was always engulfed with the need to call mom. To ask her what she's up to. To find out whether dad's listening to her advice or not. To promise her that I'll be visiting both of them during the upcoming weekend.

To tell her that I love her. And that, just like the way she showered me with love and care (and continues to do so), I will look after her.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

South Korea: Proud to be a Middle Power…?

My plane landed in South Korea on the early morning of a cool autumn. This was my second trip to Seoul, something that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. The enjoyment of that first visit had been diminished by the grey clouds and chilling weather at the time. Therefore, I expected greater things to come this time around, as I took in the sight of the future-like roof of the Incheon Airport.

Throughout my week-long trip there, I began to identify the spirit that South Koreans are growingly projecting to the rest of the world, including to Indonesia. I will write more on many aspect of this (including on the phenomena of Hallyu in the country’s soft power diplomacy) in future blog entries.

However, let me first start with an early observation of South Korea’s image, based largely on my earlier perceptions of Korea and its people. Mind you, these perceptions have been further shaped by only a few days of people-watching, museum-sighting, and official meetings in Seoul. Some questions were asked, some were responded with breadth. Therefore, any err produced in my observation is simply for lack of time, and not necessarily, understanding.

For many Indonesians, our image of South Korea is somewhat incomplete. Historians may choose to focus on the Korean War and talk of Korea as if it has not evolved from its status as an ex-Japanese colony or an American satellite. Food connoisseurs would often highlight too much on the kimchi, its variants and compliments. On a Sunday in Jakarta, Korean food is just another option among the possible restaurants visited for lunch.

And of course, for young Indonesians, Korea is K-Pop, and K-Pop is Korea. Nothing less, and nothing else.

This is how Indonesians often prefer to view South Korea; through our respective perspectives and lenses. We know bits and pieces, but we sometimes don’t connect them all up. Indonesians like me rarely soak up on the many images of Korea to make up a whole image of the country and its people. As such, we often never regard South Korea for its truer potential. We often fail to measure the extent of Korea’s strength in today’s globalized world.

And therefore, when Indonesians talk about strategic partnerships, we usually identify the United States, China, Japan or the EU. South Korea often falls below the radar of what we deem as greatness.

Just like Samsung’s Galaxy is often considered a less preferred option to Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Hyundais are often easily regarded as more economical option to the Japanese Toyotas, Hondas, and Suzukis. K-Pop is a lot of fun, but self-professed musicians continue to identify America’s music as their main reference. And Park Ji-Sung is a damn good player, but not among the greats.

Therefore, even though many things from South Korea are actually gaining global attention, we in Indonesia prefer to regard them as of secondary level or even quality. As such, South Korea and its global projections are often not seen as a threat, let alone a contender in toppling the dominance of traditional Great Powers. In other words, we don’t see South Korea the way some of us like to judge Red China or Capitalist America.

The more I thought about it, and the more I saw it on the streets of Seoul, it then occurred to me… That’s just it!

South Korea is rising… True.

South Korea is gaining global recognition… True.

South Korea is a power-in-the-making… Nope.

The country does not seem to project aspirations for great powerness. If anything, it appears that South Korea is simply aiming at that status I like to refer to as, the middle power. It is apparent that South Korea wants to progress. It wants to be recognized. It wants to matter. But it certainly does not seem that it bares intentions of great power status. Instead, it allows such status to be left for countries like the United States and maybe the Koreans’ Big Red Neighbor.

I remember when I wrote the Jakarta Post article on KIA (Korea Indonesia Australia) as the new middle powers, some of my Korean friends said: “Hey, that’s what we are: a bona fide middle power”.

A ‘bona fide’ middle power… I proposed that idea to a few Indonesian friends of mine and they sneered at me for wanting to be mediocre. “Nobody dreams to be a middle power; everybody wants to be great”, they said.

Well, I am beginning to find that South Korea seems to be fine with this… And actually doing quite well at it.

Some Koreans reading this blog may want to correct me on this; but that just seems to be the feeling that I get.

While we take jabs at things coming out from South Korea, claiming that they are perennially “second best”, I have this feeling that many Koreans don’t mind this at all. They know that whatever they produce is actually good. And they are showing this by making preferences to Korean brands in their daily lives.

Although iPhones are all around, I saw more people using Samsung phones and tabs, the rich and the middle class. While Benz and BMWs could be seen, there’s visibly an ocean of Hyundais and KIAs running along Seoul’s thoroughfares. I looked at the hotel’s TV, and sure enough, it’s an LG.

And although my interpreter confessed to liking Mariah Carey, K-Pop artists are in your face everywhere you go; on TV, on billboards, and even on the keychain of a taxi driver. The humongous crowd lining up outside the Lotte Department Store to meet one of these K-Pop artists (I couldn’t discern which one, they all appear the same to me) is an even truer testimony of K-Pop’s influence on the society, young and old.

POSCO is Asia’s most profitable steel company, and yet I was informed of this only when visiting the company. The Koreans are proud of this, I’m sure; but it just seems that their sense of pride is not so overwhelming that it becomes cockiness. I’ve yet to read an article fearing South Korea’s overconfidence; the same cannot be said of China’s image in the eyes of South China Sea observers.

South Koreans don’t go around pretending that anything Korean is the best in the world. Yet, they are comfortable with embracing them in their every day lives. It maybe has to do with being nationalistic about their local products. It maybe also has to do with the government’s protection and promotion of local products. But at the end of the day, what I see is a society fully behind the country, even if the country’s aim is not to usurp the present global balance of power.

A country comfortable at being a middle power, and making the best of its status as such.

This is something that we, as Indonesians, should start to learn about.

Indonesians often reminisce about our past glories as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement or the lead architect of Asia-African cooperation. Well, I say those days are nearing an end. In a globalized world as today, we can only dream about being one of the international community’s great leaders. That mantle is being carried by others; we can’t simply take it over. But as a ‘bona fide’ middle power, we may be able to play a certain role, and instigate that difference we want to make to the world.