Asia’s Challenge 2020

Tuesday, August 31, 2009

Time and the University of Singapore posed the question:

“What is the most important challenge facing Asia over the next decade? Why? What should be done about it?”

Asia – the diverse challenge

Asia. Some call it the root of man-kind, while others call it the fastest growing region on the planet, with four of the five BRICS nations located within it. To me, Asia is just another home.

As a student, I have no extensive knowledge about Asia’s political situation, nor do I have any ideas to add to Asia’s already growing list of developing economies. What I know is what I can see. And in the face of ‘Asia’s Challenge 2020’, I see urban development and environmental issues being key areas in Asia’s continuous growth in the next decade.

As the fastest developing continent on the planet today, it’s not all smooth sailing for Asia and its multi-cultured nations. Asia’s speedy growth is in part thanks to its massive workforce, but it is also this massive workforce that causes Asia to be dangerously over-populated.

Asia is not small. Countries like China, which are overly crowded in the cities still have two-thirds of their land fairly underdeveloped. And even though governments know that development is bound to lead to rapid urbanisation, no one can really put their finger on exactly how “rapid” it’s all going to be.

The unpredictability of social changes coupled with underestimated growth figures often lead to underprepared cities being filled with a more-than-anticipated amount of eager citizens seeking jobs and long-term stability, which inevitably results in the imbalanced sharing of resources. Many major cities eventually end up like the slums of Mumbai or like the favelas of São Paulo.

The effects of when rapid growth meets unprepared urban areas are obvious enough in Asia, some worse than others. Mumbai, Jakarta, just to name a few, are amongst the more serious. Asia is in need of some serious crowd control, and sound urban development policies should be first on the agenda.

Let us not be mistaken – urbanisation is good, and is a “natural” process attributed to a developing nation. But it is urban malignancy that we need to be watching out for.

Taipei, the city in which I live, is a prime example of what rapid urbanisation is like, but unfortunately, it is also at times an example of imbalanced recourse sharing.

As small as Taiwan is, it still has many underdeveloped areas. For example, the entire eastern coast lies largely untouched when it comes to large scale urbanisation. Public transport remains scarce and public schools scarcer. It has become a place of paradise and refuge for all those city folk who can afford to resettle there, but there is still a lack of government policies to ease the pressure on the major cities.

Nowadays, development which took the West half a century to complete is completed in just half a decade in Asia. But it is also because of that speed of development that urban malignancy becomes more threatening.

Brazil’s Rômulo Paes de Sousa, Executive Secretary of the Social-Development Ministry, coined the terms “old’ and “new” poverty – on July 31, The Economist quoted “old” as being “the lack of food and basic needs”, and “new” as being “drug addiction, violence, family breakdown, and environmental degradation.” – I believe many Asian cities suffer from both “old” and “new” poverty.

In a city like Beijing, where capitalism booms on almost every street, one can still find on the outskirts of its world renowned airport, tens of hundreds of family-run car washes, which charge close to nothing just to make a basic living.

In Taiwan, where the nine-year mandatory education policy still does little to stop domestic violence and negligence towards environmental issues. A place where the middle-class to wealthy families can afford to provide high quality education for their children to ensure that they are enrolled in to public high schools and universities, and a place where the less fortunate children have to struggle to get a place in public schools. This leaves the rest to settle for private schools and universities where tuition fees cost four to five times more.

The problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer just keeps going on and on in a vicious cycle. Sure, the government provides aid in the form of educational funds for some of the less fortunate. But we all know that aid doesn’t reach all those in need.

“Aid needs to be met with suitable and well-thoughtout policies, otherwise it will just be more and more money down the drain.”

In the case of Asia’s more rural areas, where children still give up secondary and tertiary education to help their traditional agricultural families on the farm, policies similar to Brazil’s “Bolsa Família: don’t seem like such a bad idea.

But therein lies the challenge: Asia is unique not only as a continent, but also in the sense that each and every country is so different in tradition and cultural history. Thus, Asia could never be governed by policies like the EU’s Schengen Agreement or usage of the Euro.

Asia’s challenge lies in the fact that copying other countries policies will never work. What works for China, for example, would not work for, say, Indonesia. Not only because of their differences in political stances, but also because of their population’s cultural values, traditions and religions, etc.

So, as Brazil requires the level of education to be raised, Asia doesn’t really have problems that severe. “Bolsa Família” might work wonders in South America, but when brought to countries like Taiwan and the Philippines where the level of education is relatively higher, other issues like post-graduation unemployment, take up more priority.

These two countries will need to have their own political breakthroughs which will meet their needs and their unique needs only. But where some countries can go it alone, others might require direct or indirect aid. But where aid is available in the form of funds or trained personnel, it needs to be met with suitable and well thought out policies. Otherwise it will all be put to waste and will just result in another failed attempt and more and more money down the drain.

Asia’s environmental issues have always been an elephant in the room when discussing plans to develop further. In Taiwan’s case, it is often used as a rubber stopper to halt the government’s plans to further develop the underdeveloped areas in the country.

As the initiators, the government should make environmental-friendly policies a given when proposing for elections instead of throwing tea cups at each other and making a fool of themselves on public television. But it seems most politicians are afraid of not being supported if they elect to sacrifice a little bit of the economy for the betterment of the environment.

It is not all downhill though. Taiwan’s recycling policies are some of the best in Asia, if not the whole world. It is at least better than what I saw in South Africa, my place of birth, where all rubbish goes in to one big bin and is collected weekly. On this front, at least Taiwan is one step ahead of the rest.

Researchers say that Taiwan, amongst other Asian island-based nations, is going to be one of the first to be hit by climate induced displacement (similar to what is happening to the Maldives) and its people becoming environmental migrants. Strangely enough, though, this I heard not from government reports, but from my teachers at school.

Countries like Taiwan will need assistance in dealing with environmental issues, but how can others help us if we don’t even want to help ourselves?

Environmental awareness is lacking in our everyday lives. Something which is supposed to be transmitted from top to bottom (government to citizen), is becoming reversed. And perhaps that is the only solution.

Environmental movements by NGO’s and the like is becoming more and more important as we try to make everyone aware that it need not be a duel between economy and environment. But rather, like so many Northern European nations have shown, a harmonious relationship for both humans and the environment.

I believe Thailand has set a good example for Asia, decreasing their reliance on industrialisation and turning to show the world the beauty of Thai cuisines. Chefs from all over the world travel to Thailand to get a taste of what makes Thai food such a speciality, boosting Thailand’s economy and international status at the same time.

Asia has the potential, all we need is self-value. As China has proven on countless occasions politically and economically, there is no rule that says the way to success is by emulating the West. Countries like Singapore have also proven that they have the ability to form sound and reliable policies on their own, and are even taking their own measures in countering climate issues, encouraging the usage of public transport by limiting the amount of cars which are allowed on the road depending on their license plate numbers (odd or even).

“Asia will have its own success story, but the route Asia takes to success will differ from country to country.”

Some people tell me that the only way Asia will ever come to the realisation that environmental awareness is essential, is if they are punished by nature first. Like Pakistan’s flooding or Taiwan’s typhoons.
I would like to think about it more optimistically, though, because I think the warning signs are out there already, loud and clear, and there is no excuse for us to not be on alert.

Concluding, I believe Asia’s challenge, environmentally, will be to put all the great minds to work, think up a good and long-lasting environmental policy, and take action. A firm, decisive decision with at least the nation or region’s best interests in mind is needed, because Asia doesn’t lack the innovation, nor does it lack the personnel necessary to initiate what is needed. All policies have their goods and bads, so what Asia – or at least some countries – really lacks, is decisiveness and the guts to make a decision while under pressure from the nation.

Asia is by far the most diverse continent, and therefore each country’s policies will have to take into consideration their own cultural background and history. I believe if Asia can conquer that challenge, then Asia will have its own success story. Asia will develop to the standards of the West, and possibly even overtake them, but it is without doubt that the route Asia takes will differ from country to country. JSF.

UN World Citizens

Saturday, July 17, 2009

The administrative staff at my previous high school asked me to join a movement hosted by the World Citizen Organization — a branch in correspondence with the United Nations — which invited pupils to write essays (long or short) on topics related to or on global warming and climate change. This is what I’ll be sending to them. If any of you feel like writing anything similar, please don’t hold back. It can be written in any language and can be any length. Make yourselves heard!

Global Warming From the Youth’s Perspective

Global warming. The first time I came across this term was in third grade. Ms. Peak was lecturing our assembly on a Monday morning about how our age, our generation, compared to the ‘Space Age’ of the 70’s and the ‘Pop Age’ of the 80’s, was now known as the ‘Waste Age’. Now, I’m not sure if that was an official term or a derogative term thought up just to strike guilt into us six-to-13-year-olds. All I know is that looking back on that faithful Monday morning almost ten years ago, I must admit, they were right.

That morning, Ms. Peak went on about how much our planet was slowly being changed by greenhouse gases, and how all of this was due to our irresponsible littering, reckless spraying of deodorant, and burning of firewood during the winter. Us boys, and some girls, laughed loudly at the prospect of us having to use roll-on deo-sticks instead of our usually Ego (now called Axe) deodorants just to save a few trees. We were 10, who cared about all this global warming hoo-hah or whatever it’s called. We were living our own happy lives completely unaware of the consequences. To us, greenhouse gases just sounded like another funny term we could use to describe the gas coming out of our backsides. Needless to say, I took that entire morning as a joke. And I would’ve continued to think that way if not for the then-to-be headmaster of Hurlyvale Primary School, Mr. Thom. Our Mr. Thom casually walked on stage, took the microphone, and with the simplest of metaphors completely changed my point of view:

“Have you ever seen American Western Films?” Mr. Thom asked into the microphone, “The ones where you see cowboys and such? The scene is usually set in a desert.”
We nodded, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Well, whenever there’s a gust of wind in those movies, do any of you recall seeing stacks of hay tumbling around?”
I nod again, unsure of where all this is leading.
“Children, here in South Africa we have that too; here in Johannesburg we have that too.”
We were silent and confused.
“But,” he continued, “Instead of those hay stacks, we have plastic bags flying around.”

We all laughed. But after a while, somewhere between all the laughter and commotion, I suddenly stopped laughing. I caught a glimpse of the expression on Mr. Thom’s face. I didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know that he wasn’t the least impressed with our reaction. The severity of the situation struck me that day, and my views on global warming took an unexpected turn.

That same year, South Africa implemented the pay-for-your-bags policy, meaning that shoppers at major supermarkets would now have to pay a small fee if they wanted a plastic bag for their goods, or they could bring their own shopping bags.

To be honest, the plastic bags were still awfully cheap and pretty much affordable to anyone. But the policy worked. The amount of plastic bags flying around were reduced by a fantastically large amount. At the same time increasing the sales of material shopping bags, which were bigger and didn’t break as easily; it was a win-win for everyone.

That year back in South Africa was the year my awareness for global warming began. I stopped carelessly littering, stop using plastic bags at supermarkets, stopped using deodorant and other CFC-related products (in correspondence with the Montreal Protocol), and that year in July was the last time our family would ever burn firewood to keep ourselves warm in winter. From then on, electric heaters were bought and used.

I had no idea how all of this was going to help with the matter of global warming, because frankly, I had no clue what global warming actually was or what it did. But they said doing the above would help save Mother Earth, so I did.

All that was ten years ago; hopefully this year can be somebody else’s first.

Now, 10 years on. I’m living in Taiwan, and global warming affects Taiwan too. I guess the term “global” was no joke after all. During my years in Taiwan, I would learn much more about global warming. Much more than I thought I would ever want to learn. The cruel figures of millions who starve, and even more that are under the threat of being displaced. I only recently realised why Taiwan was so much more eager to deal with the issue of global warming, and the realisation came as a hammer blow. Because according to climate change researchers, similar to the threat on the Maldives, Taiwan will soon be hit by the first wave of climate forced displacement. Thus turning the Taiwanese people, and others, into the first group of environmental migrants (or climate refugees).
I quote:

“A climate refugee is someone displaced by climate change induced environmental disasters. Such disasters are the result of incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption that include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and tornados.”

In Taiwan I often see demonstrations by environmentalist about preserving the environment and preventing the further spreading of global warming. In the beginning, I couldn’t really link the two together. Global warming and cutting trees? Global warming and pollution? Global warming and driving cars? All this was so foreign to me, and I didn’t realise how the small things we did had such a big impact on our environment. Back in primary school, I couldn’t find the connection, for example, between burning firewood and increasing greenhouse gases.

“But it’s just a little bit of smoke, dad. Look! You can’t even see it anymore. It’s gone!”
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it only looks like a little bit of smoke because it’s only our house you’re looking at. John, South Africa has over forty million people. Can you image how much smoke there would be if we all lit fires?”
I could.
My father always took my silence as a sign of acknowledgement. And soon after we stopped burning firewood, I stopped burning dry leaves for fun in the garden too. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When I’m asked about global warming these days, I usually answer with the simplest geographical explanation I can think of: cold places get colder and hot places get hotter. And that’s just the simple way of explain it.

Extreme weather is attributed to global warming, and rightly so. In recent years, the Earth has experienced events that are shaking just to think about.
I remember picking up a copy of the morning paper one day and finding a column in it about natural disasters. More specifically about the disasters that seemed to be continuously occurring month after month.

For me, the big shocker came on August 8, 2009. After half a year of moaning from Taiwanese citizens about the serious lack of rainfall, Mother Nature responded in the cruelest of ways.

Stage right, typhoon Morakot. For three weeks, the television set was filled with destruction. CNN, BBC and local news websites broadcasted the event in enough detail to convince me of the severity. Six hundred plus dead and hundreds more missing. Entire villages buried, literally, as heaven opened its floodgates. Record amounts of rainfall as flooding washed away everything and everyone caught in its wake.

Living in Taipei just a few hundred kilometers away, with my electricity, drinkable water, food, warm bed and a school to go to. How does one not feel ashamed? It could have – and should have – been prevented. It was not an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It was a typhoon which was forecasted days in advance. But the government’s lack of urgency together with the locals’ ignorance made the situation worse than it should’ve been. The only thing we could do in Taipei was watch; watch and weep as the scenes unfold on the television.

“I’m afraid to turn on the television,” My geography teacher would say, “I cry every time I do.”

After Taiwan’s Morakot came China’s flooding, then Manila’s. After that was Europe and America’s usual freeze. Eurostar trains stuck in the Chunnel and cars spinning on ice on America’s highways. In 2010 came Haiti, then Chile. America’s flooding came next, and Iceland’s volcano chain followed soon after. China and Guatemala’s sinkholes made the news soon after Deep Horizon’s oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico caused the greatest environmental disaster ever recorded in US history.

By request of my geography teacher, the oil spill became a personal project I had undergone just to let my class know what had happened. The news in Taiwan seriously lacked reports on international events, so I thought I could do a little something to enlighten them about the situation in the West. It was important, so important in fact that people would be surprised to learn that the spill is still ongoing and has already destroyed countless precious environmental recourses which cannot be salvaged…the list of disasters go on.

Natural disasters are obviously worsening. Year after year the rainfall count increases as typhoons in Asia reap havoc everywhere they go. Maybe it’s because we’ve taken too much from nature, or perhaps we’re just unlucky to have met such devastating scenarios. One way or the other, nature is biting back, ruthlessly.

Populations are growing; cities are being shaken into rubble. Lakes are shrinking; forests are disappearing. Conflicts are rising; nations are still invading. People remain clueless, we stay ignorant.
In 2010, the film entitled ‘HOME’ enlightened me. If not through this film, I would have never realised the true potential of man. I had no idea solar capturing technology was readily available in such large quantities. I had no idea Denmark’s wind farms produced so much energy. And I had no idea that there were governments like Costa Rica’s, who were smart enough to divert military spending to education, eco-tourism, and the protection of its forests. Through education, global warming and its solutions became as bright as day to me. And it is education that can allow the rest of the world to be in step with the world we’re living in and the crises we face.

“It’s too late to be a pessimist; it’s time to come together. What’s important is not what’s gone, but what remains. We still have half the world’s forests, thousands of rivers, lakes, glaciers, and thousands of thriving species. We know that the solutions are there today. We all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for?” — “HOME

One important person in my high school education was my geography teacher, Mrs. Luo. She was as informed about global warming as anyone could ever be. Not because she was paid to be, but because she had an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a kind which I too hope to acquire in the not so distant future, no matter what field I’m in. As an educator, she felt the urge just to let us know. And she made absolutely sure that we knew everything there was to know about this disaster.

My first geography lesson was filled with acronyms. Some which I understood and others which I wished I understood.
“Morning, Children.” She said smiling in the beginning of her first lesson.
As we responded, she picked up her chalk and wrote the letters ‘I’ and ‘Q’ on the board.
“Can anyone tell me what this stands for?” she asked.
“Intelligence quotient!” I shouted.
“Yes, good. How about this?” She said, writing the now the letters ‘E’ and ‘Q’ on the board. “What does this mean?”
“Emotional quotient,” replied someone else.
“Very good. Now, both IQ and EQ are very important things! One cannot do without them. But today I would like to introduce you all to something which I think is equally important.”

I will never forget the day that Mrs. Luo introduced GQ (not the magazine obviously) to us. Geographical quotient, or a measure of one’s geographical knowledge, seemed interest me right from the off. I had never heard of it before. For all I knew, she could have made it up herself. But in my years with under Mrs. Luo, GQ would be crucial in my decision to make global warming known to those around me.

Mrs. Luo introduced different organisations to us, including some house-hold names like WHO, WTO, UN and ASEAN. Mostly the organisations she thought we ought to know about and the ones that have a direct impact on our lives. Throughout the two years that she taught us, we learned about global warming and its related topics on a massive scale. She commented positively and negatively where appropriate, making sure we knew the difference between well-done environmental conservation and poorly-done environmental conservation. In the end, we came to find that global warming was essentially everywhere. In every chapter of every book; all things led to and from global warming, and this major climate shift was the reason behind all the different conflicts in the world today.

That’s exactly what I think is necessary in today’s education: brave educators. People who are not afraid of saying what is right and true. It doesn’t matter which country you’re teaching in, be it East or West, if it’s important, if it’s right, then spread the message. Let the students, the young generation or “the future”, as we have been called so many times in the past, let us know what we’re facing and what we need to do to improve. If you believe America is being naïve about CO² emissions and they alone could lessen almost a third of the effects of global warming, then voice it. If you think China’s overgrowing population is dangerously causing the depletion of the Earth’s food, water and other valuable resources, then let yourself be heard. Voice it to the population, so the population can voice it to the world. Voice it through education.

Opinions, ideals, concepts, theories. These are the driving forces behind any revolution. And, by God, we do need a revolution. It’s been long overdue and has been brewing for too long. So rally up the troops and think up the strategies. Education is by far our strongest weapon. The children, the world’s little soldiers, are ready. Too many of us lie in darkness unattended and unarmed; in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceana and the Americas. This is not a racial war, nor is it a cultural or religious war. This is not about different peoples, just as it’s not about different nations. This is a global war against a common enemy, and the cause is ironically just to ensure that in 50- to 100-years’ time, we will still have a planet we can call “home”.

I hope the plea of one can voice the plea of a million. So forget your guns and forget your nukes. Make use of the untapped potential that lies within every child. If we are indeed the future, as they say, then arm us; education us. In the war against global warming, help us, so we can help you. JSF.