Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Attacking Aung San Suu Kyi won’t save the Rohingya – she is still the best hope for Myanmar

CommentInsight & Opinion
Christopher Johnson says critics of the Nobel Peace Prize winner don’t understand Myanmar’s politics, its history, or how easily the country could return to military dictatorship

Bishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, Justin Trudeau and many others are pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi over her response to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

More than 400,000 signed a petition to take back Suu Kyi’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and 20,000 want her honorary Canadian citizenship revoked.

Do they understand Myanmar’s politics and history of ethnic violence better than her? Of course not, and they should stop smearing a woman who, like millions of minorities, faces persecution from Myanmar’s generals.

Instead of placating foreigners, Suu Kyi was elected to serve constituents who post videos online accusing Rohingya Muslims of taking scarce land and resources from Buddhists, beheading monks, raping women and sparking clashes with victims on all sides.

Suu Kyi said on Facebook that her government was “defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible”. She decried those who spread “fake information” to promote “the interests of terrorists” such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, blamed for killing police and border officials last month.

She’s also dealing with a military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who vowed to never let “Bengali terrorists” repeat 1940s atrocities in Rakhine.

Suu Kyi doesn’t have the powers enjoyed by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accuses Myanmar of “genocide”, or of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who praised Cuba’s repressive late dictator Fidel Castro.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi, winner of the 1990 and 2015 elections, from the presidency because she married a British citizen. She can’t amend it because the army has a de facto veto in the assembly and controls police, borders and most bureaucrats.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, warns that Suu Kyi is “walking a tightrope” and “dark forces are clamouring for a return to army rule”.

“Stigmatising Aung San Suu Kyi and attacking her through the media is not a long-term solution,” he said. “A false step will see her out of government and that would be the end of any dream of democracy. We should always remember the army took back democracy

Suu Kyi isn’t the worst player in this crisis. Bangladesh, historic origin of the Rohingya, has threatened to ship refugees to a flood-prone island notorious for pirates. Indonesia, a majority Muslim nation, doesn’t want 400,000 Rohingya. Thailand and Malaysia haven’t done enough about smugglers accused of rape, murder and extortion.

Al-Qaeda’s call on Islamic radicals across Asia to infiltrate and punish Myanmar underscores Buddhist concerns about Islamic extremism. Can we really expect Suu Kyi, who spent most of the 1990s under house arrest for marrying a foreigner, to sympathise with chauvinists who forbid women to pray in mosques or marry non-Muslims?

Avowed feminist Trudeau hasn’t condemned Islamic fascists in Myanmar or sanctioned Canadian miners doing business with corrupt generals.

Thus, many in Myanmar see hypocrisy in outsiders who called the attractive younger Suu Kyi an “Angel of Democracy” in the 1990s, when it was fashionable to glorify repressed Buddhist women, but now scorn the 72-year-old matron when the media portrays Muslims as the leading victims.

After decades of war, Suu Kyi can’t turn Myanmar overnight into a Trudeau-style “post-nation” where everyone is a rainbow. Myanmar faces bigger challenges than Obama-era identity politics. Millions in Myanmar lack proper roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, water and sanitation. Thus, when asked about Rohingya, Suu Kyi emphasises government efforts to improve living conditions for everyone.

For positive change, activists are better dealing with Suu Kyi than a military junta without her. It’s possible to condemn or sanction Myanmar’s military, and defend rights of the Rohingya and other minorities, without ruining the legacy of Asia’s most heroic woman. Silent or complicit, she’s still the best option.

Christopher Johnson is the author of Siamese Dreams and Freedom’s Rainbow

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Would Asia’s army of migrant domestic workers stay home if they could?

CommentInsight & Opinion
Theophilus Kwek says governments and scholars portray domestic workers, mostly women, as voluntary migrants. But applauding choice must not distract us from tackling coercion

Domestic employment in Southeast Asia’s rich metropolitan centres is often presented as a lucrative, even strategic choice for thousands across the region pursuing better livelihoods, or an improvement in living standards.

In a recent address, a Singapore minister praised his country’s foreign domestic workers (colloquially referred to as “maids”) for choosing to “support their families back home” in this way. His language echoed that of reports in Singapore’s national broadsheet, typecasting domestic workers as “women from impoverished families seeking higher incomes abroad”. Unsurprisingly, state-supported charities like the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training have made it their aim to maximise returns on these women’s decisions to migrate: by “adding value to their work”, and hence “enhancing their future employability”.

Academics within and beyond the region are prone to entrenching this view. Southeast Asia’s domestic workers are mostly portrayed as voluntary migrants who, as one researcher put it, set out to “make money, save it up, and invest it strategically in a transnational manner”. This reading has also begun to shape policy discourse. A briefing released by the UK’s Department for International Development in early 2016, authored with a team at Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, framed labour migration as a “pro-poor livelihood strategy”, undertaken especially by women from “poor households” to support “productive investments” in education and other areas.

A narrative that characterises the decision to seek foreign domestic work as a free, informed, and laudable choice, however, conceals the fact that labour migration in Southeast Asia is chiefly produced by deep-seated drivers of displacement.

Taking a more nuanced perspective would not only allow us to account for the causes of forced migration within the region, but also to address them.

Sending states are a key piece of the puzzle. As early as 2001, Indonesia’s new minister of Manpower and Transmigration stated that his government would “facilitate labour export” as a solution to unemployment, given that “about 40 million people [were] jobless” at the time.

Professor Stephen Castles, a former director of the International Migration Institute, has pointed out that encouraging emigration to ease joblessness can bring “long-term costs to the economy and society”. Nevertheless, political leaders in the region who are unable or unwilling to create employment at home may well perceive exporting domestic labour to be an attractive, and no doubt affordable, policy solution.

But states rarely urge their citizens directly to take up poorly remunerated and ill-protected jobs overseas. Instead, conditions can be created (or left to occur) in which those in difficult positions view the sacrifices involved in doing so as the least bad option relative to other life choices.

A 2015 study by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics found that close to two-fifths of Indonesian, Filipino and Myanmese foreign domestic workers had migrated “to be able to send their children to school”, while 15 per cent reported either problems in the household or a lack of available jobs as reasons why they left.

Solutions to such problems should rightfully be demanded from national governments.

Still, pressures for displacement are not created by sending states alone. The umbrella of responsibility extends much further, to transnational employment agencies which charge extortionate rates and wilfully distort information about working conditions abroad, as well as intermediate authorities at home who willingly overlook stricter safeguards during the recruitment process.

Global and regional market dynamics are also to blame.

Skyrocketing inequality in Southeast Asia means that any gains in regional wealth are enjoyed by a thin, privileged elite, leaving few options for those struggling to make ends meet. This makes domestic work, often in unappealing conditions and far from home, still a desirable option.

To be clear, we cannot afford to overlook the agency of migrant workers in determining their futures: indeed, the willingness of so many to make the best of their circumstances speaks of great personal fortitude and hidden sacrifice.

Yet, applauding choice must not distract us from tackling coercion. A narrative which foregrounds only the voluntary aspects of migration tempts us to think that migrants bring upon themselves the trials they face abroad, and allows those responsible for deprivations endured elsewhere to get away with easy solutions.

We owe them, and ourselves, a better explanation.

Theophilus Kwek is a writer, editor and researcher based in Singapore. He has recently completed a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University

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平權爭議 是教育危機還是契機?

















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Hong Kong shames itself again by its treatment of domestic workers

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo takes a look at the latest revelations about the plight of foreign domestic workers in the city to remind Hongkongers how it reflects on them

In his classic science fiction novel, The Time Machine, H. G. Wells presents an anti-utopian vision of a future in which humanity has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The beautiful but spoiled Eloi, descended from the idle rich, enjoy a life free of work on the pastoral surface. The downtrodden, beast-like Morlocks, evolved from the working poor, toil underground in the dark to keep the surface dwellers fed and clothed.

Let’s hope we’re not heading in that kind of direction, the way people in this part of the world treat their domestic helpers from less-fortunate nations. And what a shame that Hong Kong is yet again making headlines in this regard.

How about this for starters: 500 domestic helpers will be sleeping tonight, and every night, in toilets in their employers’ homes. That’s according to a concern group that has just released a survey of the living conditions of 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in the city.

At the same time, 14 per cent of them can’t access toilets when they need them for something other than to sleep in. And about 70 per cent share bedrooms with children, elderly people or co-workers, while 21 per cent sleep in the living room.

In one case, a helper’s bed was fitted into a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven. A tiny rooftop room, only 1.2 metres from floor to ceiling, was accommodation for another helper. It makes me ashamed of complaining that I don’t have enough room for myself in my flat.

Yes, many Hong Kong families live in appallingly cramped conditions themselves, but we’re talking here about those who are affluent enough to afford hired help in the first place.

It doesn’t help that the government is an immovable object in the face of calls to ease the live-in requirement imposed on foreign domestic workers, and the opposite of an unstoppable force in making sure they are not treated like something to be folded and stored away for the night.

Now it’s taken a bunch of university students to show us, after their seven-month investigation, that more than 70 per cent of employment agencies here charge excessive fees to domestic helpers, withhold their passports as leverage to squeeze the money out of them, or stiff them in some other illegal way.

“If it’s that tough for them here, they’re welcome to go back home,” the unsympathetic often say. Why such disregard for people who prop this city up on more than one level?

We have about 350,000 domestic helpers serving 280,000 households in a city where families rely heavily on them to look after babies and grandparents while both husbands and wives go to work. They wouldn’t like their incomes halved now, would they?

That’s just the money part. Their other, often unappreciated contribution is the substitute for parenting they provide, and the companionship and care for elderly people who would otherwise be neglected. Like it or not, they are a glue holding the fabric of society together.

Going back to the future with the Eloi and Morlocks, the analogies are not limited to just helpers and employers. It’s about the age-old class divide, the class struggle, and what that could eventually mutate into in the centuries to come.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the best part of the story. The trade-off for the Morlocks’ life of drudgery is that they get to nip up to the surface at night to grab hapless little Eloi and drag them down into the depths to feast on their flesh.

To the Morlocks, the Eloi are actually livestock to be tended and fattened for food. Karma comes in many ways, I suppose.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post