Monday, November 19, 2007

An unlikely time to say goodbye to the 'ASEAN way'

With the planned signing of an ASEAN charter this week, some observers believe that now is the time to drop the regional body's adherence to the "ASEAN way" -- the policy of noninterference in the internal politics of member states. The new charter calls for a regional human rights body, a stronger secretariat and most importantly the power to suspend member states who break the rules. All of this would seem to be stepping away from the old consensus-based ASEAN that has, since its inception, been too sickeningly polite to give the Burmese junta the dressing down that it so desperately deserves.

In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal today Khairy Jamaluddi writes "As useful as the 'Asean way' was in managing regional ties during past eras of autocratic is time for Asean to slaughter its most sacred cow....The Charter aims to recast Asean as a rules-based organization with enough teeth to enforce its rules on member states."

The problem with all this ASEAN optimism is that the neighborhood still lacks a country that will really be able to stand-up for these values. The unfortunate logic of ASEAN non-interference has always been the wisdom of not throwing stones when your house is made of glass. And in the areas of democracy and human rights the region's homes seem to be built of only that one thing.

What state amongst ASEAN will really push for democratic reconciliation without feeling that its own political process will then be open to scrutiny? Thailand with its own clique of ruling generals? Singapore, which although having strong-rule-of-law, has had the same party in power since day 1 and still carries out the charming practice of imprisoning political protesters? Will Malaysia be the voice of human rights at ASEAN meetings, with its race-based economic and political system which unabashedly aims to maintain the preeminence of the majority ethnic group?

The new ASEAN charter will undoubtedly be a boon for regional human rights groups that will now have a codification for complaints created by leaders from their own states. But beyond perennial finger-wagging aimed at those who cause the grouping real embarrassment, as in the case of Burma, it is hard to imagine a ASEAN states ever carrying out a process aimed at punishing member states with suspension or even formalized censure when every nation amongst them knows that the same could happen to them.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A human swarm

Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock...The reason may be that the ants have had a lot more time to adapt to living in big groups. “We haven’t evolved in the societies we currently live in,” Dr. Couzin said.
From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm - New York Times, Carl Zimmer, Novmber 13, 2007

I often wonder what degree of individualism is desirable if Western society- or indeed human society - is to thrive in the coming century. The Geography of Thought - How Westerners and Asians Think Differently - one of the most interesting of recent salvos in the nature nurture war - posits fundamental differences in decision making processes in Asian and Western societies. Westerners tend to make decisions based on isolated facts and set logical rules whereas Asians put much greater importance in looking at facts within a larger social context. When looking at a picture an Asian will take in the entire scene whereas a Western eye will search out and remember the most prominent objects within the frame.

In a century where world culture will become profoundly more urban and spiraling consumption threatens us with all manner of global catastrophe, will East Asia, with its emphasis on social harmony and context-based decision making, introduce a global value system as vital and controversial to the 21 st century as market capitalism was to the 20th? It could well be that Western economics and technology has built the cities that East Asia will someday show the world how to live in.

But I am not so sure.

What stands out to visitors of East Asian cities is a the lack overall order and planning. Some of this is what makes many of these cities charming - the walkways swarming with street food vendors, the outdoor markets that seem to cropup in even the smallest civic crevices - but the convoluted clogged roadways literally overflowing onto the sidewalks with two-stroke engined motorcycles belching blue smoke into the air; the massive fetid dwellings that seem to be placed in a fashion too indiscriminately to have been built by any conscious human mind - all of this seems not to jive well with the Asian society as a beacon for consensus based solutions to a growing world's ills.

While the family and the village are units that an individual can conceptualize - understanding his place within and seeking to maintain social harmony by assessing context rather then abstract logical constructs - a city is too complex for any individual to ever truly grasp his place or how his limited actions can effect the larger organism. It is when society becomes large and dense enough for the social context to be unknowable that abstract principles and laws become important. And for now the West has the edge on just this type of thinking.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Illiteracy in China

I have often suspected the official literacy rates in China to be greatly inflated. I first became aware of the great difficulty of learning to write Chinese from my students in Mian Yang, who would wake up at 4 or 5 am to copy characters on layer upon layer upon layer of thin tracing paper. Whatever else I might be teaching them that day, during any moment of respite they would go back to copying the same eight or nine characters that had been assigned for the day by whoever taught them Chinese. And all with caligraphy pens -- it was shocking to see them write English as i have never seen "Jack went into the car" enscribed with such ornateness and inticacity. Every phrase that the students put on the board was a wedding invitation, a diploma.

Given the demands and complexity of this system, I suspect that the Washington Post's assertion that illiteracy rates are increasing in China is incorrect. It is very likely that under past leaderships, rural beuaracrats were under greater pressure to exaggerate rural literacy rates then they are today. And their is certainly more openness, allowing for academics such as the one in this article to draw attention to the shortcomings of the rural education system.

It is surprising that Maureen Fan would correctly critisize current literacy statistics gathering methods and yet hold up the older data as proof of lowered reading levels. If anything one would suspect that todays statistics are far more accurate then the ones gathered ten years before.

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