Much ado about veils

by Dana on January 28, 2010

Backed when I lived in Toronto, there were areas in the city where you would see veiled women.  I feel the same way about veils as I do, well, Mormons in full Mormons dresses, or Jews in full Orthodox gear.  The light bulb that goes off is: these are some pretty religious people, and they are probably fairly segregated from the community at large.

And most likely, these not people I would end up fraternizing with, nor am I someone they would want to hang out with anyway.  But if they can navigate and do well within their own communities, what business is it of mine, or anyone else’s, to tell them how to live?  The idea of “female repression” barely registers.

So could this whole big deal about banning the hijab in France be the result of a specific French interpretation of the veil?

According to a fact-finding project conducted last year that surveyed general public’s attitudes towards Muslims in the UK, France, and Germany:

The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women.  … [T]he general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.

As for the reason most frequently cited by French politicians in support of the ban?

Regarding the link between “repression of women” and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.

If France thinks the deep-rooted social and structural problems behind integration can be solved by removing veils from the streets, then they’ve got another thing coming.

But then again, Sarkozy also supported the Swiss ban on minarets, so there you go.

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Is Syria the new pragmatist of the region?

by Dana on January 28, 2010

From the way it approaches relationship-building with its neighbours, it sounds like the second-coming of Turkey, whom is also busy re-arranging regional chess pieces under the radar.

With Turkey:

The countries came close to war a decade ago, now they are establishing a strategic partnership that will have major consequences for the future of the region. Opening the Turkish/Syrian border, removing the visa requirement, and restoring a stretch of the Hejaz railway line that operated before the first world war should lead to an unprecedented increase in bilateral trade. Trade has already risen from $500m to $1.8bn over the past 10 years.

Balancing the maintenance of its long-term alliance with Iran, while adding Israel to the mix:

The Tehran-Damascus axis was formed immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution. It has withstood crises, but the two countries do not have the same vision, or interests. Unlike Iran, Syria is ready to recognise Israel and negotiate with it.

Assad also pokes at what he perceives Europe’s lack of vision, cohesion, and independence when it comes to politics.

Europe is absent. “In the 1970s and 1980s, Europe was more objective than today; there was the Soviet Union on one side, and Europe was with the Americans. Now they have to be more independent; but they are going in the wrong direction, the cold war has ended.”

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For decades now, Israel’s experiment with collective farming has remained free of dogma, repression, or, let’s face it, cultist stuff that scares our pants off when the word “commune” comes up.

It turns out that in the last years, most of the kibbutz have been transformed into profit-making, capitalist co-operatives.

Today, many kibbutzim not only have thriving businesses – including in the tourism industry – that operate exactly like other private enterprises, but some have even decided to embrace the capital market: 22 kibbutz companies are currently listed on stock exchanges in Tel Aviv, New York and London. With annual sales worth Shk37bn ($10bn, €7bn, £6bn), the kibbutz companies account for about 10 per cent of Israel’s industrial production.

A shift from agriculture to heavy industries switched the lights on, and the community self-corrected.  Unfortunately, the Communist bloc did not get the memo.

[T]he shift to industry that started in the 1960s and 1970s was an important factor in persuading the kibbutzim to change their ways: they realised that a factory, unlike a farm, is hard to run along egalitarian lines. Someone, in short, had to manage, and someone had to stand at the assembly line.

Much of the change in ethos also came from an increasingly rich country in general.

As the country began to prosper during the 1980s, Israelis increasingly turned away from the frugal socialist ethos that had dominated the state’s early years.

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What, whom, and where is Uzbekistan?

by Dana on January 28, 2010

Many ethnic Koreans were relocated to Central ...
Image via Wikipedia

Two years ago, I spent a few week scratching the surfaces of post-Soviet Central Asian states.

The most populous one, Uzbekistan, came out of the Soviet Union richest, and the most well-equipped country of the region.  In the 90s, however, ill-advised forex controls, poor import-substitution policies led to an over-valued currency, and subsequent fall in standard of living.

I’m bringing it up now because Uzbekistan made the news recently, when the government decided those pictures taken by an Uzbek photographer give a negative image of the country.

I’d say those are pretty flattering, no?

Consider Robert Kaplan’s unforgiving portrait of Uzbeks in The End of the Earth:

[T]his generation were proles, without a history of a culture.  While in the 1930s, Maclean could write that “life seemed easy” in Samarkand, “and the inhabitants seem to spend most of their time talking and drinking tea,” six decades of communism had taken their toll.  Too many young men in the cities of Uzbekistan lived a skid-row version of A Clockwork Orange. Ignorance and alcoholism were partly responsible for a fatalistic public response to President Karimov’s dictatorship.

Attached, some Cole’s notes on those countries, highlighting the differences between countries that are with, and those without resources, following two decades of various attempts at economic development.

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Happy Republic Day in India

by Dana on January 27, 2010

India became an independent nation 60 years ago yesterday.  Congratulations!

And to celebrate the day, the South Korean president was invited to attend the Indian version of the White House state dinner.  What does the two countries have in common?

A lot of trade, as it turns out.

Since the end of the cold war, India has followed a “Look East” policy that calls for building deeper trade and security ties with Asian nations rather than focusing on Europe and America. India is now diving into economic integration with Asia, beginning with a new comprehensive trade deal with South Korea.

Economically, the two countries excel at relatively different things.

“India is very good at software, Korea is very good at hardware. Similarly, there are complements between different sectors where trade should be much more, but we haven’t gotten to that level because of trade barriers.”

Well, that is, until India becomes better at hardware – Tata?  And Korea gets in the way of Infosys.

In the meantime, Korea will lend its expertise to India in infrastructure, and India will reward the knowledge transfer with those massive contracts.

On the eve of the visit, New Delhi gave the environmental OK to a South Korean firm to build a $12 billion steel plant in the Indian state of Orissa. The project represents the biggest foreign investment in the country.

South Korean companies won nine of the 44 contracts for India’s National Highway Development Project. And the country has manufactured trains for the darling of India’s new infrastructure projects, the Delhi metro.

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Life is getting worse and worse still in North Korea.  From its currency devaluation last year, to the effective halt in black-market trading of food items due to a curb in foreign currency transactions, putting enough food on the table everyday has become an almost impossible task for over a third of its 24 million people.

And now, this piece of data: over the past two months, some parts of the country has experienced a 12-fold inflation in the price of rice.  Twelve fold!

So first currency collapse, then mass starvation and now impending famine.  How will the economy function?

Joshua Stanton think bartering is the next step.  Within the coming year, he thinks the government will either allow another country’s currency to act as the de facto medium of exchange; find cash to buy food on the international market to feed its people – difficult to do considering worldwide economic sanctions; or, the most likely option, get bailed out by its wealthier neighbours.

Stanton thinks it’s China.  But I think Japan, as well as South Korea will also feel compelled to open its checkbook, when taking into account the existence of nuclear weapons and the real political and economic implications of a collapsed regime in the region.

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Some say with social media, citizen journalism, and all kinds of grass-root reporting, we’re getting a better picture of the world as it happens.  Many cite the roles played by witnesses and bystanders during the Delhi siege and Iranian protests, as a testament that we are better off and more informed now with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

I am still somewhat skeptical with those claims.

It’s certainly easier for news items to go viral and bombard us from every direction (in that, yes, if the news is important enough, it will get to us).  But there’s a lot of politicking that goes on behind the scene, in deeming what kind of news are worth the fanfare, and which ones are not.

Case in point: Egypt versus Iran.

Iran is deemed a hostile state by most of the western world, a scourge in a volatile region of the world. So unsurprisingly, it got ample coverage last year during the election and protests that followed.

Egypt, on the other hand, poor but a steady ally (the second largest aid recipient of the US, next to Israel), is only heard in the western media in connection to the Gaza, its vastly oversold tourism industry, or at worst, pollution in Cairo or of the Nile.

I lived in Cairo for three months a couple of years ago.  From what I’ve seen and experienced, and continue to hear through friends, it is a police state through and through.  It’s a place where dissents are repressed and persecuted, where the majority of its people live in poverty, many in utter misery.  There is nothing hyperbolic about the sorry state of Egyptian politics, where one strong man has dominated the regime for three ruthless decades.

But against all odds, some people do want to speak out.  But nobody’s listening.  Consider a rough comparison of our contestants again, Egypt versus Iran:

[P]opular feeling against the Mubarak oligarchy here is just as real as anti-Ahmedinejad sentiment in Iran, and the potential for monumental political upheaval just as substantial.

I don’t know much about Tibet except when Bjork and Richard Gere make me perk up.  But this account of Tibetan military history, starring British generals, Tibetan warriors, and Red China, is a pretty entertaining read.

The military history of Tibet divides pretty clearly into two parts: the glory days of the 7th-9th century, when Tibet actually challenged China for dominance in south-central Asia, and the sad, slow decline ever since, where the slogan would be: “Tibet, where old meets new and loses.”

Read the whole thing, also because it’s told in a narrative fitting for a voice-over on Sita Sings the Blues, or something similar.

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The business of child-trafficking has turned international adoption into a dubious affair in the last couple of decades. Poverty and gender biases don’t help.

For decades, there has been a steady exodus of abandoned baby girls leaving China for a better life elsewhere.  All good and well, until one delves deeper into where those children really come from, count how much money had changed through how many pairs of hands, before they were stamped for foreign adoptions.

The economics of adoption leads to almost inevitable corruption and ethical trespassing, when orphanages get a $3,000 donation from each pair of adoptive parents every time a child is adopted.

In some cases, the children were not abandoned, but kidnapped by traffickers, whom then falsified records as to the origins of the children before selling them to orphanages.

An even more callous set-up has been operating in Ethiopia for years.  With little government regulation nor policing of the process, adoption agencies flashing Christian credentials have been coercing and recruiting families from rural areas to give up their children.

Does this make you sick?

In a remote village in the country’s south, the agency openly recruits children with parents. Each child offered for adoption is then filmed for a DVD catalogue which in turn is shipped out to potential adoptive parents.

Elsewhere, Vietnam has suspended its adoption program with the US, as well as Ireland, in order to deal with corruption and ratify various accords that protect the children.

America’s second largest source of babies, Guatemala, where 1 in 100 children born is adopted by Americans, also briefly suspended its adoption program back in 2008, amidst evidence of rampant fraud and corruption.

It looks to me as though the bilateral trade of children is now back on.  But with this kind of money involved – as much as $25,000 per child adopted, how can anybody be sure that they are not complicit in this morally deplorable trade?

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What makes one person more ambitious than the next?  Is it social factors – upbringing, class, cultural influences, or is it primal – genetically fixed with some kind of temperamental determinism?  And is a trait like ambition absolute and unwavering, or is it something more fluid, that is, once dormant, if can be unleashed with the right trigger?

This Time feature finds out.

What I find interesting is how an over-exercise of ambitions can lead to not only extreme stress, but cheating and other moral transgressions.

Cheating was common, and most students shrugged it off as only a minor problem. A number of parents–some of whose children carried a 4.0 average–sought to have their kids classified as special-education students, which would entitle them to extra time on standardized tests. “Kids develop their own moral code,” says Demerath. “They have a keen sense of competing with others and are developing identities geared to that.”

And what better example than those over-ambitious Chinese students (and their parents and teachers) that cheated in a marathon in order to get extra exam credits.

Competitors stood to gain a crucial advantage in China’s highly competitive university entrance exams. Those who finished in under two hours and 34 minutes could add extra points to their score in the gaokao. … The exams are so crucial to the future of Chinese children that both students and their families will go to extraordinary lengths to guarantee success. Last year, eight parents and teachers were jailed on state secret charges after using communication devices – including scanners and wireless earpieces – to help pupils cheat.

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Staring apocalyptic demographic trends and economic stagnation straight in the face, Japan and South Korea have told some of its workers to go home early.

In South Korea, the Ministry of Health are telling its workers to go home early as part of its worker-wellness experiment.  It really says something about your workforce when a government agency forcefully turn off the lights one day a month and send workers home at 7pm, this makes the news.

The Ministry of Health, now sometimes jokingly referred to as the Ministry of Matchmaking, is in charge of spearheading this drive, and it clearly believes its staff should lead by example. Generous gift vouchers are on offer for officials who have more than one child, and the department organises social gatherings in the hope of fostering love amongst its bureaucrats.

Needless to say, it’s got a long way to go in transforming general attitudes towards work in the country.  Work-life imbalance aside, many are still aghast at pricey child care and the efforts in providing children with a good education in South Korea.

The comments left behind are the most telling:

The cost of nursery care in Korea can be four times that of a full-time university student’s tuition. Plus, many parents feel compelled by competition to have private tutoring for their kids, even in primary school. An average family spends up to 50% of their income on one child’s education so it’s no wonder only the well-off can have two or more kids, and the poorest can’t even begin to start families. The emphasis on education here is a bit extreme.

I spend quite a bit of time in Seoul on business and I can confirm that the Koreans work extremely long hours. The young software engineers will work till 0300 or 0500 and then stagger in the next day at 1100 ashen faced. Obviously, this leaves no time for procreation. One Wednesday last year they were all sent home at 1800 for a half day and nine months later two babies arrived on the scene. Now, it is company policy to take a half day (ie stop at 6pm) on Wednesdays, but they tend to sneak back in to get working again.

David Frum gave a speech in Caracas on the state of Venezuelan politics, and made a few observations.

Chile was held up as an example of success, where democratic leaders that took over from Pinochet left his free-market reforms alone because they worked.  He also praised Norway for making the austere efforts of becoming a democratic and transparent petro-state.

On Venezuela, Frum criticizes the country for attempting to maintain two separate currencies.

Even where these systems are very well designed (the South African system was especially ingenious), even where they are enforced by a generally honest and effective civil service (as was the case in South Africa), they end by exhausting the foreign reserves of the country. One crisis, and the whole thing collapses, leaving only waste behind.

Venezuela also lacks transparency, which means billions of dollars can vanish into thin air.  When it comes down to it, Frum looks at the results and pronounce transparency a more vital virtue.

Singapore is not a liberal democracy. But its accounts are open and honest – and Singapore, a barren rock that nature has endowed only with humidity – now ranks among the richest countries of the world.

By contrast, Argentina is a democracy. Human rights are respected. Yet without transparency, it ranks among the most corrupt places on the planet – and its standard of living, once among the highest in the world, has plunged below its neighbors, Chile and Brazil.

There are various arrangements that ensure check and balances in the modern world.

In the United States, France, and Mexico, the executive and the legislature are elected separately. Powers are separated, and each checks and balances the other. In Britain and the British Commonwealth, in Japan, and in most of Europe, the legislature is elected directly and the executive derives its power from the legislative majority.

In Chavez’s regime, the executive branch controls the legislature.  This does not work.

By whatever name, the system of executive supremacy over the legislature amounts to the same thing: unchecked power. Such power can never be trusted. And those who most avidly seek such power are precisely those who can least be trusted with it.

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In the hands of very few oligarchs.  So much for egalitarianism and meritocracy.

A December review by Ernst & Young, for example, found that a mere 98 people control 43% of the voting power on the boards of the 40 companies comprising France’s leading CAC 40 stock index. Not only that, but this dominant corporate core is nearly 80% French — a lopsided percentage, given that nearly 40% of the capital in those businesses is owned by foreign investors.

The elite traditionally comes from the French version of Ivy Leagues/Oxbridge, its grandes écoles.

Various studies show that the student intake to the grandes écoles became more socially diverse in the 40 years after the second world war but the trend levelled off in the 1980s and may have even gone into reverse.

The social elevator has stopped and the middle classes have tightened their stranglehold on the institutions that guarantee a passage into France’s political and business elite.

Many blame the way it funnels graduates into elite circles that dominate French politic and business circles.

“It’s hardly a secret in France that in order to become an executive in a top French company, be asked to serve on a board or be tapped for a high civil-service post, you’ve got to have the right background, the right education, and have the powerful network of allies to help you get there,” says Marc Touati, deputy director of the Paris-based financial-services group Global Equities. “Most are well-trained and talented people, but there are lots of people like that who have no chance at those top spots. Like it or not, France is run by a caste.”

In a state obsessed with republicanism and the eradication the appearance of elitism from its surface, some go as far as equating a diploma from those institutions to ascension to a new aristocracy of status.

Others point to its ways the system excludes poorer students, particularly those from immigrants backgrounds, as one of the social friction behind France’s continuous search for a national identity.

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I love this comparison of Cuba against the rest of the region, effectively pitting two systems against each other.  It is eerily similar to the equality versus fairness argument on a micro scale, and stretched to the extremes.

The authors asks:

Comparing the two political and social systems also reminds us that for many people in the world, a truly fulfilling life is unattainable. In this vale of tears there must be compromises – but which are the right ones to make?

Cubans enjoy an existence free of the kind of violence and neglect their neighbours deal with on a daily basis.  While the rest of the region suffers from too much inequality, Cubans suffer from too much of equality.

Consider this:

Poor Cubans cannot dream of pulling their families up toward prosperity by starting a business and working hard. Poor Hondurans can – but social and economic realities make success unlikely.

The questions then becomes:

Who is more free: a person who is officially guaranteed free speech and the right to advance in society but is sick, hungry, and frightened of the police, or one who is guaranteed security, education, and basic levels of health and nutrition but must curb his conscience, knows that his life may never improve, and cannot depart to try his luck elsewhere? Which is it worse to deny people: the freedom to nourish their bodies, or the freedom to nourish their minds?

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Berlin’s a cool city, in that it straddles the line separating east from the west.  It’s a great city to be in for history buffs, a poster-child that exhorts the “creative class”.

Berlin has worked hard to earn its reputation as a place that attracts artists and creative-types.  After all, there’s nothing like cheap rents, low cost of living, relaxed laissez-faire vibes, that attracts those looking for inspirations without a fat checkbook.

But as one of the most chronically depressed cities in Europe, it’s also an economic basket-base.

With a 20% unemployment rate, the highest percentage of Berliners living in poverty compared to the rest of the country, Berlin’s “arm, aber sexy” (poor, but sexy) slogan is but a glamourized marketing job to mask the indignations of a stagnated city.

None hit home as much as this Prospect article from a few years ago.

Berlin epitomises the trend. In the 1990s, massive funds were expended to make the restored German capital into the business capital of Mitteleuropa. These ambitions foundered on the city’s high taxes, red tape, and generally anti-business culture.

Faced with such problems, what does the mayor of the bankrupt city propose? Cut taxes, build new infrastructure, find ways to keep the middle classes and businesses?  No, Mayor Wowereit pegs the future to selling Berlin as “the city of glamour.”  To him, “the most decisive aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin.” Somehow, he believes, this will turn the city’s sad economy around.

To their detriment, a fruitless chase of coolness has led cities to abandon long-term investments in infrastructure, taxation, middle-class flight, in favour of a city’s inventory of jazz clubs, gay bars, art museums, luxury hotels and condos.

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