Jakarta

The thing with Dutch eyes and a Nippon name breathes  through metal tubes,  soot spraying its collarbones and  lips folding like old raisins.  Its fingers stretch into skyscrapers but around it the sewers spill, nipping ankles with green water.   The thing with bronze skin  and yellow hands   feels tremors  every now and then   and coughs up rivers of petrol.   Through the years it has learned silence;  its body heaves with sound  but its mouth is a sea wall  and the noises shatter inside.     During the longer days,  the city dreams of sinking.      Home becomes a rough and painted thing.  Home becomes the headlines  that like sandpaper  scratches out its name to  ‘sinking city’, ‘most polluted city’.   Home becomes the eggshell setting over potholes, the coat of white on every roadside as the city tries to start again.     

Should We Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’?

The Internet has once again cultivated a burgeoning political movement that, at its core, aims to ensure accountability for people’s behaviours. The movement, which often takes place within the social media sphere, is colloquially known as cancel culture. It envisions a utopian future in which the justice system is perfect, where no one can escape taking responsibilities of their actions in fear of its consequences. But how far do consequences go? Recently, comedian Shane Gillis was stripped out of his new gig at Saturday Night Live following a resurfaced footage of racial slurs made on a podcast in September 2018, along with various other politically incorrect comments made over his career. The decision has since attracted mixed opinions from the public, with SNL alumni Rob Schneider expressing his sympathy for Gillis and comedian Jim Jefferies claimed that “this is just cancel culture”. On the same occasion, Bill Burr argued that the society has stooped so low to purposely nit-pick people’s past remarks “looking for the bad stuff”, often while disregarding good deeds the person have done. On the other side of the spectrum, actor Daniel Dae Kim of Always Be My Maybe and The Divergent Series took upon his Twitter to express his contempt. “Gotta be a joke in there somewhere,” the Hawaii Five-0 star wrote. Similar sentiment was echoed by Kim’s Convenience actor Simu Liu. The lead of Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wrote in a tweet, “It wasn’t funny then, and it sure as hell isn’t funny today.” Gillis has offered to apologise “to anyone who’s actually offended” via Twitter. On the same tweet, he justified that his intention was never to hurt anyone, and that the offensive remarks were results of his failed attempts at being funny. Many think the apology – which has since been deleted – was done in poor taste, including host/comedian W. Kamau Bell, comedienne Atsuko Okatsuka, and US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Personally, this is where I sit within the spectrum. I tend to see the world in black and white. When I was little, I found it hard to comprehend that something can be both good and bad. That your classmate is not necessarily lazy when they often come late to school; they might live in an area where public transportation is unreliable. As I grew up, I started to realise that most things in life can’t be put in neat boxes of right or wrong. Often, what we can do is weighing whether one thing brings more harm or good, and make decisions upon that deliberation. I, like many other people in this day and age, am strongly against any form of discrimination. I believe there is no good excuse in favour of discriminating certain groups based on superficial criteria such as race or gender and we need to strive to eliminate traces of discriminatory laws and institutional racism carried over from the olden days. One way of doing it is via activism and making sure that all offenders are fairly held accountable. The most accessible platform for such purpose, considering how widespread it is nowadays, is social media. As a result, cancel culture was born and has been gaining traction since. My question is how much of it works to serve justice and teach lessons? Where to draw the line between calling out, playing judge, and just outright bullying? How do we fairly decide which celebrities deserve to be cancelled, and to what extent do we cancel them? As a comparison, Nicki Minaj just married a registered sex offender and we haven’t heard anything about her cancellation. Moreover, what does cancelling someone achieve other than making a point that we do not tolerate discriminatory remarks and actions? Does it educate offenders on why is it offensive? Will it stop people from internally, but not outwardly, being racist? To stretch it a bit further, due to the “you versus us” nature of cancel culture, will it then unintentionally spread the message that it is impossible to stand with the affected communities, unless you are one of them? On the other end, I wish Gillis had been more sincere about his apology. It did not exude remorse nor did it promise any sort of effort to learn from his mistakes. Not to add that it was not the first time of him expressing such views in public, meaning that it was not a one-off, unfortunate circumstance. However, do these views come from a place or hate or simply ignorance? Being a privileged white male, I can imagine Gillis has encountered very few occasions in which he is being discriminated against purely based on his skin colour. This lack of personal experience might have led him to have a less empathetic stance on this issue. I believe what is more important than cancelling others is to work on eradicating ignorance and encourage a more cohesive society to minimise segregation and exclusivity. Start bridging interracial gaps and befriending others regardless of their racial profile. Many argue that it is easier to build a community of homogeneous race, but if we are not going to break the invisible barrier, the community will remain homogeneous for as long as we can foresee. In the words of Connor Franta, I think we should aim to try coming from a place of kindness and compassion. By allowing people to move forward and apologise, we are giving them chances to prove that their racist remarks come from ignorance rather than deep-rooted belief. I believe most people simply lack education due to racially insular upbringing, which unfortunately is still prevalent even in today’s era of interconnected world. I might be a naive young adult with stars in her eyes, but I firmly believe that an eye for an eye will only make the world goes blind. Hostility is never the answer to conflict resolution and I believe in promoting healthy conversations in times of dispute. Although things are definitely better these days, we still have a long battle to go to combat discriminations and be fully united as fellow human beings.  

Hong Kong

The hollow grasp Cannot last; Their voice slinks out From the vice-grip Scaling itself To avoid the usual routines That could expose its nascent  Dream. It closes in upon itself To protect each fledgling  Rebel citizen Nudging away the demons of Complacency It comes in the firing line of Authority Its heart has opened up  Its vulnerabilities Nothing can stifle A freedom That hasn't forgotten Its history. This is the time for Glory The world is now just An oyster Freedom is pearled Safely amidst  Disaster.

Of Places, Of Feelings

Tik, tok. Tik- lost. Distracted. Lost. Distracted. That clock won’t start ticking any slower, will it? Is that how a ticking clock usually sounds, anyway?   My mind has, once again, gone places as I (am trying so hard to) listen to this lecture on- what is it again? I honestly don’t really listen. Why can’t my brain make up what the lecturer is saying? Am I in my right mind?   Can we really be ‘in our right mind’, at this point in time? Frankly speaking, this point of every graduating students’ lives is daunting. Adulthood awaits you the moment you handed in your last assignment. People tell you, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of changes in your life after this. Well, it’s not like we hadn’t encounter changes, face-to-face before. In fact, we see them all the time. It’s as simple as me, developing these weird habits of; going for quick morning jogs when I’m such a couch potato, studying in spaces I used to hate and started sipping alcohol (after deciding to stop 324845 years ago!). Maybe it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to most people. To me though, it is something. I’ve done a good job sticking to the do’s and don’ts I made before I went to Melbourne. But this whole leaving thing just cancels out every balance I’ve tried to work on. It’s as if the world wants me to let loose. As if it’s telling me that I can’t go without giving proper lasts to my firsts in Melbourne, when I’ve only got two months left. Plus, I thought it would be the perfect time to feel and to dwell on my own- whatever I’m feeling.    I was never a fan of the clichés, but while I was trying to process these changes - what they mean to me, I’ve had moments of realization. Or rather, episodes of me resisting to transition to adulthood. That it frustrates me when everything suddenly becomes choices. Choices so diverse, decisions so certain. That it frustrates me to know, everything I thought was right might not actually be right. And everything I thought I am might not actually be me. And this thing called doubt, knocked on my door to convince me that I have taken the clear sky with quite literally shimmering stars during the drive back from a road trip and even the corners that I spent most of my time with my closest in - for granted. That I may not have done enough for the place that has witnessed me conquering my fears and anxieties in this hard knock life. There, I began to second-guess my decision to stay or leave for good. But I didn’t want to acknowledge it, I just shoved them right up. I am obviously in denial, I need to escape adulthood, I thought.   The idea of letting go of the constants - Melbourne, the people, the corners and mostly, the feeling, sucks. I felt like I needed escapisms. Like I needed to satisfy the urge to give lasts to my firsts hence, the ‘new’ habits. Maybe part of the reason is because I’m trying to convince myself that I am capable of trying out new things, not merely because I wanted to. Isn’t this what is expected by adulthood, being all ready to take risks and accept consequences? I thought I would never be suited for adulthood until I realized that it’s not me that doesn’t suit. My denial and adulthood are actually the two things that don’t quite match. Denying, running - I don’t think that’s how you get by. Maybe I should learn to accept the fact that I will soon be leaving all of this. If this is all too beautiful then maybe, the least I could do is to grow further from how Melbourne has made me. If this is all too sweet then maybe, letting go is the way forward. Maybe it’s the same with people, leaving a place you have been so fond of might not be the same as forgetting the memories you made. Wow, just how much a place could make you feel. Ten years from now when I look back, I’ll see flashes of us back when we went on road trips or walking home from late-night snack bars, the library, or even after a fulfilling karaoke session. It’s a process. And I’ll tell you all about it when our paths once again cross each other.   Off to the infinite I go, for now.  

Resistance to a nightmare reimagined: Review of The Man Who Saw Everything

Oppressive regimes weigh heavy in the minds of citizens.    For forty years following World War II, the German Democratic Republic governed the private lives of individuals with extreme surveillance and stifling authority. Infiltration of people’s behaviour, relationships and desires were commonplace, and movements in and out were severely restricted. The state commanded total knowledge and control.    With its systematic power the GDR achieved not only obtrusive rule of external life but also breached the psyche, pervading personal lives, thought and perception. This amounted to a deeply intimate invasion by history’s most successful surveillance state. But it did not prevent citizens enacting forms of resistance to prevent government officials intruding.    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 former GDR citizens have found avenues to voice historically private struggles against the paranoid state. Gestures of resistance by an outwardly subdued population allowed the protection of their inner worlds from Stasi agents. While the autocratic government and its oppressive laws inevitably seeped into minds, thought could not be absolutely controlled. Subtle forms of internal and external dissent, even covert sedition, were both possible and necessary.   In The Man Who Saw Everything, the latest novel by British author, Deborah Levy, we are taken back to the GDR where the impact of the regime is strikingly wrought on the inner world of a fictional outsider. Saul Adler is a British-German academic whose research takes him to East Berlin. There he encounters enigmatic figures, including Stasi agents, that irrevocably change him and his understanding of the world. We see a deterioration in his mental health and it is difficult to grasp what is real and what is illusion. Filtered through Saul’s perspective, the omnipresent state and its agents twist perception. As he becomes clinically unwell, Saul is repeatedly haunted by spectres of the regime.   Saul’s story traverses several decades, taking place in both modern-day England (within days of the 2016 Brexit referendum) and East Germany in 1988, just before the Wall was to fall. While the book only fleetingly references Brexit, the potential parallel with German history is foreboding. Published in the second half of 2019 it coincides with two significant events: the British public watching its government sever itself from the European Union in protracted chaos and the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Levy’s character is a demonstration in the extreme of how the security state bears upon the mind. She uses Saul’s narrative as a device to illustrate the political at the psychological level, operationalising Saul’s decline as the possibility of a future tyrannical state. By referencing Brexit Levy interweaves the current-day zeitgeist with a history she sees a risk of repeating. It is within this intersection where we might interpret Levy’s transportation of her protagonist through German history as her protest against the UK’s impending EU exit.    Where invasion and oppression exists, so too does resistance. It is perhaps a human inevitability. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of anti-Brexiteers have marched the streets, desperate for the reversal of the decision that stands to isolate them from Europe. Levy distils such political resistance into Saul’s internal struggles. In Germany Saul becomes aware of parallels between the tyranny of the regime and a past he finds difficult to bury. He comes to terms with a latent desire and finds liberation in the repressive nation. Forming a sexual relationship with his male translator is his own personal revolution—a transformational response to the admonishment he received from his father for his sexuality. This act bears a similarity to those who confronted the East German ministry, those who engaged in relationships that were disapproved of and who persisted even in the face of death.   Albert Camus said that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.” Levy’s philosophy is one of the personal as political. She injects this maxim into her protagonist who houses metaphors for both the regime and its resistance, and a relation of the past to the present. She has a knack for getting beneath surface level, down to the unconscious mind. Using cameras and lenses, reflections and representations, layers of character depth and metaphor surface. It’s a technique that elucidates her key parallels. “Perhaps I was history itself,” Saul reflects, “floating around in a number of directions, sometimes all of them at the same time.”    The Man Who Saw Everything signifies a government’s capacity for bearing almost absolutely upon and within a person. Levy, who is on record opposing Brexit, presents in her novel an ideology of State control and the way in which an oppressive system of government violates thought and shapes an individual.  Looking forward, it is possible to conceive of a Britain isolated from the world around it, with walls erected and people barred from entering and exiting. The nation’s attempt to construct its own enclosure, partitioning itself from the rest of Europe, amounts to an act of extreme isolation and exclusion not unlike the German project. We might consider Levy’s book an intimation of that endgame, a warning of what it might signal for a self-exiled UK.   Levy’s novel attempts to connect the current day and the history that preceded it. It is a comprehensible illustration of the modern-day possibilities of a totalitarian regime. She reifies the German experience for a British audience with both a history lesson and a cautionary tale.  Against the backdrop of an appalling history, Levy’s act of writing The Man Who Saw Everything is one of resistance to a state she imagines post-Brexit.

Global Integration for Better or Worse: A Look into Global Digital Currency

It is an inevitable fate for the world to evolve and develop. Despite providing benefits that allow the world to operate more efficiently and conveniently, there may be dire consequences that people face due to changes. Therefore, when a large-scale innovation is implemented, it is vital for people to look into potential repercussions, which in this case is the imposition of a global digital currency.   The cryptocurrency, which is a digital currency, took off to fame when Bitcoin came into popularity. Interestingly, with the growing popularity and potential revolutionization of money, central banks of 19 countries are currently considering the issuance of a digital decentralized currency to replace physical currency.    Cryptocurrency has its strengths. In Zuckerberg’s words, “The idea behind Libra is that sending money should be as easy and secure as sending a message”. Global currency, after all, brings users together under a single currency. Benefits brought by this include near anonymity, lower costs and the elimination of financial intermediaries. These translate to more freedom to individuals and businesses through increased scalability and inclusiveness leading to the creation of global opportunity.    Following the cryptocurrency trend, Facebook proposed a global digital currency, Libra. In comparison to Bitcoin that has a fixed supply of coins and volatile price due to its independence of any financial system, Libra is backed by fiat currencies (money that has value established by the government) and its supply corresponds to the amount of the currencies’ pool value. However, it faced strong opposition from the government and the central bank. With this in mind, some questions to consider are whether Facebook’s digital currency is the right step forwards and whether the resistance against global digital currency is an effort to protect the people or a selfish way to secure market share and control.   Looking at it broadly, an overview of whether a global currency should be pursued may provide surface-level consideration. For instance, the government’s official reasons for being against Libra are quite obvious. Libra is supposedly backed by safe instruments such as short-term government bonds and fiat currencies. However, if Libra does work well, these safe instruments will pile up and the investors’ liquidity issue will be raised if they make a run for Libra.   Secondly, the system is not advanced enough for Libra to perform as a global currency. To picture its current state, on average, Bitcoin processes around 7 transactions per second while the fastest major cryptocurrency can process 1,500 per second. Visa, a global payment solution,  processes 24,000 transactions per second. Libra wants to become a global system, but at its current state, it is not possible.    If the technology does improve, the next problem is who holds control over this system? What the public has to consider is the government’s unofficial reason. Cryptocurrency threatens to break the monopoly that governments and central banks have on their ability to print money and manipulate the economy in favour of upper-class interests.    Narrowing down from the big picture, a single global currency held by a private company blurs the line between commerce and finance. So, why is this a problem?    Libra, on its own, is a currency not controlled by the Treasury. Thus, Libra will not be competing with other cryptocurrencies but with banks. The fact that Libra is pegged to the US dollar indicates that the dollar will also be exposed to Libra’s risks. Furthermore, Libra places the US dollar in a basket with other currencies, potentially creating problems such as speculation, liquidity issues and the fact that decisions made will affect multiple nations and their economies.    A further possible consequence is the “domination of government by financial and industrial groups” - as warned by President Franklin Roosevelt to Congress in the past - which shines a light on the real threat Libra poses: the ability to be both the owner and operator of a company. For instance, JP Morgan’s ability to charge consumers higher electricity rates was simply due to their ownership of the energy trading business. This suggests that Facebook could potentially open their own bank and offer more favourable credit terms and faster transactions to customers who use its banking services at affiliated retails. A trickle-down effect from this would be the inability of small banks and retailers to compete.    Here, it is not the government that seeks to secure market power, but the big corporations and banks. This is a valid reason for the government to be concerned and to make an effort to limit the possibility of this occurrence in order to protect the people.    Lastly, a single currency that integrates people in a global manner also raises concerns of control. One of cryptocurrency’s key features is the decentralization of control. Traditionally, financial decisions and transactions require a single financial intermediary, such as banks. With cryptocurrency, decentralization is enabled in which the supply and value of the currency are not dependent on financial intermediaries but are controlled by code protocols. Libra contradicts this purpose as it centralizes sensitive users’ information which would pose a threat to greater control and monitoring ability over their transactions and behaviours. Facebook’s past scandals regarding Cambridge Analytica and tampering elections have broken their credibility on the handling of private data. This defeats one of the main purposes and benefits of cryptocurrency and presents a false impression of freedom from control.   Certainly, global digital currency provides financial inclusiveness and opportunities to the people, but control is still concentrated within a number of private entities. Concerns regarding private entities having too much power, having access to spending habits of billions of people and exposing risks to other economies make it questionable as to who benefits the most in the end. It is not a zero-sum game between the people and the government as there are other parties involved. In fact, it might present a greater threat as a private company now has monetary power over billions of users.   Facebook is indicating that financial inclusion problem is due to faulty technology, thus initiating Libra as a solution. However, it is worth considering that the cause of the problem might be mistaken. When we have this perspective, we can then see that having a new technology implemented might not be the right solution to the current issue with financial inclusion and cost inefficiency.   In fact, the solution might actually be to improve what currently exists. The central bank should still have control over the nation’s currency, but the system within itself should be adjusted. For instance, the central bank could make the payment system available to individuals rather than only to banks, which would lead to the provision of real-time payments. Additionally, using retails’ points of contact operations as an answer for the financially marginalized population would allow them to have easy access to money. They can then use payment applications on their phone for transactions.   These suggestions show that policy changes in the current monetary system might be a better solution at this stage. It is also better for central banks themselves to consider creating a digital currency in order to ensure control is held by the right entity while also providing the benefits digital currency possesses and taking a careful step towards a cashless future. 

What it Means to be Human: A Questioned Question

I found myself one day just sitting by my windowsill and daydreaming. I must’ve forgotten that I had my piano lesson at six o’clock that day. It was the day eight-year-old me discovered his very first philosophical question through a short Youtube clip. I can’t recall all the details in the video, but the main theme was somewhere along the lines of, ‘what makes a human human?’. Funny thing is, only after 15 minutes or so I realized I had been sitting still doing nothing but think. The spark of thoughts mixed with feelings of awe and frustration kept on piling with a little bit of this and a little bit of that and AAAAAA.. I’m so dead if my mom knows I skipped my piano class!   Now I’m 21 years young, and I’ve picked up this mini hobby where I tackle philosophical questions every now and then, with one condition: I must talk it out with another person. It is just amazing to hear the endless stream of ideas and opinions towards these mind-bending questions. Now let me kindly put one out there for you: what is your most precious possession? I got this one from someone else dear to me, and it is one of my favorite questions to bring to the table, and you are going to find out just why in a moment. Now, where was I? Oh right. So, I will not define the word ‘possession’ for you because it lowers the value of your own interpretation of the word. Okay, now that you and I have already locked in our final answers, what happens next? Well, you are going to live to tell the tale I suppose.   The answer can be anything ranging from something with sentimental value like that one old necklace from your grandma that she gave you when you turned 17, to something that is so simple, like your phone, cause just face it, it’s 2020, no one can bear a single day without their phone in their hands. Even non-physical things can be your most precious possession. You may think your most precious possession is your knowledge and wisdom because without it you are but an empty shell in this whole wide world, or your ability to taste because FOOD IS LIFE! Anyway, different people can come up with all sorts of different fascinating things. Even the very same person can have different answers ten years ago, now, and in the coming ten years. One time when you were a helpless little kid, your most precious possession can be your adorable soft toy on your bed that you hug every time you cry. One time when you are older you might change your most precious possession to your local public transportation as it lets you commute easily between your home and your workplace. Another time it could be your capability to shed tears as it comforts you during your hard times. The possibilities are crazy! But let’s not stop there.   What if you ask a human-made AI, a supposed simulation of human intelligence processed by machines to be able to learn and reason based on the input of information, the exact same question? I don’t know about you, but my intuition tells me right from the get-go that they simply can’t answer it properly, can they? We humans even tend to change our answer from time to time, adapting with whatever comes our way and keep ranking our possessions based on the battle we currently fight. Or perhaps I am just hoping that they will never be able to. Because if somehow, someway, the AI gets jacked with a ton of data, and by that I mean every possible variable and piece of information known to mankind to the point where it is as if I am talking to a human whose answer I can relate to heart-to-heart, then it can only mean that humans are gods, no? I mean, we humans just created a human, right?    Now let’s slow down. Reminiscing back to my eight-year-old self and the mixed feelings that lingered in my heart after encountering such a simple question of what it means to be human. Even now, I still feel the kick after a good session of positive open debate and conversation with my friends. Oh, were you expecting me to provide you with the answer to the big question myself? But I just did. Personally speaking, what is your most precious possession is the open-ended question that answers that big question. It’s unfair, you say? To answer a question with another question? Well now, it’s just so beautiful, isn’t it?   For the cherry on top, we must ask ourselves again, are we really ready to live side-by-side with highly sophisticated AI? Do we really want to run our society as though interactions with machines are more valuable than human interactions just because human errors occur more often than computational errors? And no, by all means, I'm not saying that we should stop improving. I’m talking less about ambition and more about attention. Look around and feel the power of saying “thank you” to the waiter who picks up your order in the restaurant compared to just clicking buttons and confirming your order from a screen at your local Maccas. Miracles exist daily when we engage with others. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and get rid of the beauty of looking someone in the eye and connecting with them immediately. Let’s not have a clunky metal and heater system from a battery to ever replace the intense body temperature when they hold you real tight whenever you have the idea of feeling someone’s warmth. Let’s not change our babies’ first words from “mommy” or “daddy” into “beep” and “boop”.  

Quo Vadis Student Activism? – The Missing Resistance

A famous biblical story goes that the apostle Peter, fleeing crucifixion in Rome, meets the risen Jesus, to whom he asks, “Domine, quo vadis?” – “Lord, whither goest thou?” To this, it is said that Jesus replies, "Rōmam eō iterum crucifīgī" – that he is going to Rome to be crucified again, inspiring Peter to return to Rome to preach, despite the impending repression he knew he would face at the hands of Nero. I myself am not a Christian. Nevertheless, the phrase “Quo vadis” to me is still useful as an exemplification of resistance. It incites a reflection on one’s courage, one’s bravery, in the midst of an escape from repression.  A show of resistance against attempts to control and suppress what one’s morals convict him to do. When Peter asks, “whither goest thou”, Jesus may just as well have replied, “to resist”. In the modern era, one cannot possibly talk about resistance without talking about students. Particularly in Asia, the student movement has been lauded for its success in bringing about democracy and liberty to areas where norms of authority and control strike deep into the cultural hearts and minds of those who inhabit it. From the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea to the fall of Suharto in 1998, not to mention Tiananmen Square and the Philippines’ 1986 People Power Revolution, students have played an immense role in bringing the sweeping tides of democratisation to their homelands. Yet if the spirit of a student activist from the early days of Asia’s democratisation had risen and taken a peek towards the state of the student movement today, their question may not be “Quo vadis”, but rather “Quo vasisti” – “where hast thee gone?” There is no doubt that student activism still occupies a prominent position in Asia’s political landscape today. Hong Kong’s student protests against the extradition bill and student resistance towards revisions to Indonesia’s criminal code are a testament to this fact. But while it’s nice to think that the actions of students today have brought about wide and positive change, progress requires that we be more critical of our success and face the harsh reality that student activism today has yielded very limited results – that it is nowhere near as visible, effective, nor as widespread as it was in the days of our predecessors. This begs the question: what has happened to Asia’s once powerful and politically salient student movement? What explains the dismal state of student activism in Asia today? One possible answer to this is a change in the nature and structure of Asian society. Asia in the late twentieth century – at the height of the student movement – was marked by dictators abound. From Suharto and Marcos to Chun Doo Hwan, authoritarianism was clear and visible, manifest in the strongmen who ruled over their territories with an iron fist. The obviousness of this authoritarianism presented a clear target for resistance. The objective was clear: oust the dictators, enact free and fair elections. Yet authoritarianism today is far more complex, far less obvious and much more dubious as a target of resistance. The single strongman, symbolic of the entire authoritarian regime, has now been replaced with the illusion of democracy: yes, a democratically elected leader, but behind him a web of patronage, money-politics and behind-the-scenes transactions that occur in lieu of citizen participation. Asia no longer has authoritarian rulers, instead authoritarian elements in its laws and institutions which seek to control the minds, bodies and movements of its citizens. Student activism against authoritarianism is no longer as simple as resisting a single man, but rather has become a fight to undo a web of corrupt institutions and embedded cultural practices. This, no doubt, presents a much more difficult challenge than what our predecessors had to face. Albeit ironically, democracy has also brought challenges to the efficacy of the student movement. Resistance in a democracy is an inherently comfortable process. Backdropped by severe restrictions to political participation, the authoritarian era saw street demonstrations and quasi-anarchism as the only ways in which one was able to show dissent. Although disruptive, one cannot deny that the discomforting and uncomfortable nature of this process evoked an atmosphere of gravitas surrounding the student movement. In contrast, the downfall of outward authoritarianism has meant that resistance now manifests through the comfort and stability of participatory democracy: elections, the free market, and both mainstream and social media. This expansion of participatory rights is certainly a good thing. However, what has resulted is a subduction of students to more passive and mundane forms of resistance, thus presenting limits on the student movement’s ability to sway the hearts and minds of observers. It is not only the democratisation of political systems that has ironically depowered the student movement. The democratisation of higher education in Asia has also led to changes to the once politically salient image of the student activist. Around the world, university used to be a privilege, reserved only for the sons (and occasionally daughters) of the social and political elite. As such, there existed an ‘étudiant oblige’ – an unspoken understanding that students, being privileged in their access to higher education, have an obligation to become the voice of the powerless and spearhead their country towards development. This noble task of students was no doubt recognised by the public, whom often encouraged the political activities of students as leaders of a young nation. Since this time, however, higher education has expanded to include not only the rich and elite but also the everyday person, with university enrolments growing by 21% since the 1970s. Mass participation has shed the student movement of its symbolic image as the noble intelligentsia. It has been depoliticised – stripped of its meaning, influence and status; reduced of its political role and bargaining power. The respect older citizens afforded towards students as a demographic no longer exists – at least not to the extent it did. An intelligent and salient image is absolutely crucial in attracting the empathy of observers towards student activists’ causes. Yet in this respect, the egalitarian effects of democratisation in Asia have again been ironically detrimental in continuing the noble image left behind by the student activists of yesteryear. Despite these challenges, students still constitute the most fertile of grounds for pro-democratic resistance to bloom, in an Asia where authoritarian ghosts have come to return. For example, students are naturally free of the family or business ties that suppress one’s ability to be truly critical of a government. Meanwhile, universities remain bastions of knowledge, constituting a concentrated body of young and motivated intellectuals, exposed to modern ideas and easy to mobilise towards an anti-authoritarian cause. Hence, the question to be asked is not “quo vadis”, nor “quo vasisti”, but rather “quo vades student activism?” – “whither art thee going?” It is upon us as Asian youth to learn from the lessons of our activist history and reflect on the future of how we, as students, can affect positive change in our societies through our resistance, and how to do so most effectively. For there is no doubt that an Asia with a strong student movement will be an Asia with a strong democracy.          

Our Tireless Battles

Early morning. A typical Wednesday. The city is empty and half asleep. Vacant sidewalks. The air cold with remnants of winter. Immersed in the quiet, I smile.    Across the globe, deep inside Brazil, another tree catches fire. Blazing sparks dance with clouds of ash. A forest exhales its last breath.   I order my usual – a cup of chai – and thank the barista as I find my seat. In that second, another flame grows, hungry for new sprigs to devour.    Out the window, I see a gloomy sky. I silently pray it doesn’t rain. Meanwhile, in Brazil, a fire persists. Billows of smoke rise, and reach for heaven themselves.   ---   I don’t remember when, exactly, our planet tumbled into this slow collapse. I’ve read of dystopian worlds – in fiction novels and adventure books. But these days, those stories seem to inch closer to reality. In the news, on social media, tragedy is inescapable.    We don’t wake up angry. Not until the papers serve us breaking news and devastation for breakfast. Dread infiltrates our dining room. It looms over our heads as we read the big-lettered print.    Child stops breathing. Smoke in villages. Flooded city. Protesters riot.    Dread offers a side dish of secondhand emotions. Hurt, worry, and helplessness, as we watch a world cry through a television set.    Sirens. Shooting in Orlando.    Footage of a hailstorm. There’s a hurricane in Indonesia.    Wounded animals. A decline in our ecosystem.    Click.   We switch off the news. Change the channel. And just like that, dread evaporates. An hour later, my family sits for dinner and laughs about new jokes again.   We couldn’t leave our lives and save the world. There are too many problems to fix. Being removed from the pain is a blessing. (Maybe an extreme fortune we always take for granted). So we float quietly and happily in our own little worlds. A busy university life. Brunch dates on the weekends. Music concerts. Crowded shopping malls. Noise, noise, drowns everything out.    It is only so long until the sound pierces through. Living within bubbles of cities and neighbourhoods, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that at any given moment, someone, somewhere is in need of help. The world cries from a distance. Guilt seeps in as I subconsciously turn a deaf ear.   This is a new reality. When I resume my life, a static hum follows. Knowing the earth is trembling, I can’t rest easy. When the suffering doesn’t cease, I go to bed restless. My compassion fatigued. My mind oversaturated, nearly desensitised, by tragedy.   ---   Reading headlines, we feel anger, yet by 6 PM it simmers. Our emotions are riled up, then crash into desperation. These are not our battles, and yet we have lost.   Our days are clouded with compassion fatigue. Another word for “I’m accustomed to this pain”. It’s defined as “emotional residue from exposure to traumatic events.” Events like grief, terror attacks, and climate change. Another term I discovered this year was environmental anxiety. The constant unease that sits at the back of our minds, reminding us about our future ticking away.   It is this restlessness that drives us to the streets, marching with signs and choruses of protest. It is this anxiety that makes us desperately seek eco-friendly options, measuring what changes we can make.   Changes we can make. Incremental, and over time. Like social media campaigns and worldwide climate protests. A collective chant, a frequent hashtag, digital activism. Change is here! We need laws and are given megaphones. Removed from the actual battle, we pick up sticks and imagine they are weapons.    What can I do? I look at my current life. Two hands. Textbooks.  What can I do? When I wanted to study in Australia, the hopes and dreams I had were, frankly, my own.    I didn’t plan on changing the world. I wasn’t aware the world needed much changing. But it does. Now it does. In a split second, I, alongside millions of others in my generation, was exposed to the fight. Forced to join the front line. Thrown into a battlefield we never asked for.    We’re way past angry. What do we do when we feel powerless?    One. I list the things I can change, and can’t. The actions outside of my reach, and within it.   For example: Things I Can’t Do For a Burning Rainforest.   Firefight. I can’t fly to the scene of the crime.  Bureaucracy. I don’t know how to lobby politicians into urgent action.  Rescue. I can’t save the locals who are losing lives in the thick of smoke.   It aches, when we realise we can’t be the superheroes our world needs.    But what if the world doesn’t need a superhero? What if it doesn’t necessarily call for a Greta Thunberg to emerge every day? What if all it needs is people willing to fight for it? The stubborn, the relentless, those brave enough to take action, and naive enough to believe their efforts matter?   Things I Can Do For a Burning Rainforest.    Donate. Technology has made this the easiest, most accessible it has ever been.  Educate. Teaching new generations not to repeat the same mistakes.   As much as we’d want to, we can’t fight inequality, climate change, and refugee crises all at the same time.    So, Two. I make peace with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. I choose my battles. Pick my weapons. Identify what’s within reach.    Maybe for others, it’s environmental action. Policy-making. Humanitarian aid. Maybe for a student like me, at this given time, it’s advocacy. Education. Giving.    We try our best but remember: tireless, limitless resistance is counterproductive. Fight in one way. Fight for one thing. It is no use squeezing ourselves dry if there’s no more left to give.    Three. In true soldier fashion, we need to care for our wounds. Acknowledge that it’s an uphill climb. Filled with difficult, painful truths to grapple with. Confront the anger. Turn it into fuel. Confront the sadness, and finally, release.    Four. News and social media are bearers of bad news. This means they’re built to transfer pain, not to help you heal it. Find what will. Disconnect if you need to. If the world needs us, we can’t afford to be anxious.   You have to believe that change is taking place out there. In more subtle, non-headlining ways. And believe that you can be a part of it. A link in the chain, through which hope can ripple through.   Do you hear that? Our angry battle cry. The ground is shaking. Far ahead, armies of cynicism, fear, and defeat.   Chin up, soldier. There is work to do. So wrap your scars, and join the line.   We haven’t lost this battle yet.  

Kashmir

What are we to you But crushed dirt Powdered earth That will soon Slip off your hands From the crevices Of your unwieldy grasp That you expand each day As our heavy hearts,  Snuffed out by long Isolated nights Turn rebel, And all our lost days Come back to us To break the frozen Surface Like a seismal garden That grows in the gaps As defiance.