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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Caught in the Woods

Book Review
Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami
New York: Vintage, 2000

"Insanity is contagious." – Joseph Heller

This ran in my head as I read and finished this beautiful novel by Haruki Murakami. The book captures the themes of love, loss, and sexuality, which reflection I'm trying to find in Japanese society. The feelings pent-up, and the emotions boiling underneath a mild-mannered outer shelling, the beautiful Japanese people.

I’ve been wanting to read “Norwegian Wood” since I was first introduced to this award-winning novelist through another of his books, "After Dark". "After Dark" was a bit more simple, but “Norwegian Wood” was immensely rich in images and feelings. I’m not sure about how “Norwegian Wood” feels in its original Japanese-language form, but the translation version was every bit a masterpiece.

Murakami succeeded in bringing us inside the head of Toru Watanabe, who is in love with his dead best friend’s girlfriend, Naoko. Unwilling to let go of the life that he fantasizes with Naoko, Toru is unable to open himself to the love affectionately proposed by another girl, Midori. Kizuki, Toru’s best friend, and the boy who Naoko could never get over, was dead at the beginning of the book but remained omnipresent, haunting the lives of people he touched.

Then, throw into the mix a handful of other “wacky” characters: the older, seemingly “normal” mental institute patient, Reiko; the “perfect” queen, Hatsumi; and her playboy boyfriend, Nagasawa, who is an overachieving under-achiever and an aspiring diplomat… (ehem-ehem …)

The story flows easily between the seemingly “real” world of Toru and Midori, and the dream-like world of Toru and Naoko. It pulls and pushes the reader emotionally, making us question what is real and not, which is the world of the sane and “the mentally incorrect”. At one point, the novel gave me a slight understanding of how many Japanese youths may have plunged themselves into suicide. Every character is pushed to the brink of emotional wreckage, only escapable through death.

I checked a Japanese-English dictionary and learned that “Toru” means either “persistent/transparent” or “the sea”. I couldn’t find any other word that would best describe the central character of this book. Toru lived in this world as if a transparent being, unheeding of other’s feelings even as strong as Midori’s. Toru is also persistent in his self-proclaimed oath to protect Naoko. And more so, Toru’s mind is wide and deep like the sea; or for some, as lost and untraceable as the woods in Norway.

And then, I remembered another quote:

"When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained." – Mark Twain

Monday, 3 October 2011

Book Review – A World Without Islam

Graham E. Fuller
New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010

If Islam didn’t exist, would there still be conflict between the West and “another”…? This is the central theme that runs through this excellent, easy-to-read book. Today, when Islam and Muslims have become scapegoats for every problem imaginable in the world, Fuller argues that conflict is never purely about religion; it’s usually about land, natural resources, national egos, spheres of influence, and balances of power. Religion is used by people to fan the flames of conflict and hatred to catastrophic levels.

Through a careful study of the history of relations between Christianity, Islam, and their peoples as far as the Crusades, Fuller answers the question by demonstrating that the potential for conflict has always existed, even without Islam. Unlike what many would like us to believe, the history of modern-day international relations did not begin on 9/11.

This book is a must for those who want to understand the bigger picture in today’s West vs. Islam debate. Many times, it’s too easy to fall into one camp or another; to defend the West for their supposed altruistic values, or to defend Islam as the religion under fire. Fall, and you will end up like those supporting or even acting like Breivik or Ben Laden.

Fuller’s account of Islam’s role in shaping civilization goes to prove the point that Islam didn’t just come out of the Arabic dessert in the last few decades to challenge the West. This is the picture that certain western neo-conservatives like to paint; one which attempts to portray Islam as a barbaric religion completely unattached to Christianity, thus making the Muslims easier targets as “the other”.

My favorite part of the book is Fuller’s analysis of the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th Centuries. We often oversimplify the Crusades as the ultimate conflict between Christianity and Islam. Fuller points out interestingly that Muslims at the time didn’t see this as a war between religions, but as a continuation of the rivalry between the West and the East, which had earlier existed in the form of the Latin Romans (Rome) vs. the Greek Romans (Byzantine).

I was also intrigued by Fuller’s explanation of the West-Soviets rivalry as a continuation of the one between Rome and Byzantine (as represented by the Orthodox Catholic church in Slavic Europe). During the Cold War, the West-Soviet friction was THE rivalry, THE conflict. It pitted two different ideologies in the fight for spheres of influence, land, natural resources, and balance of power. It almost sank the world to complete annihilation. And it evolved with the Islamic world simply watching from the sides.

We Indonesians know very well that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims are seldom truly about religion. It’s usually about political influence; differences among tribes, among tribe leaders, and separatist/secessionist tendencies against the unitary state of Indonesia. When a side shouts “Allahu Akbar”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a conflict is religious-based. Religion is merely the vehicle, and not the end.

To those who identify themselves as an educated pluralist and “moderate” (regardless if you’re a Muslim, Christian, or atheist), Fuller’s line of argument is nothing new. Even then, it’s always good to have analysis and views supporting our perspective. In a time when people are often easily pushed to extremes, and when schisms are nurtured by ignorance, we must become part of the empowered moderates. And to be empowered means to nourish one self with be knowledge, including about history, the world, and its people.