Posts by Kai Clark


Why has Taiwan not passed marriage equality yet?

Kai Clark

Politics | Asia


"In the face of love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” In a short 15-second campaign video, Tsai became a symbol of progressive change in a region tainted by repression of queer rights. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), later won the 2016 elections, taking the presidency and a majority in the legislature. Marriage equality was imminent.
But she failed. Last year, the DPP was unable to pass its marriage equality bill due to the fierce backlash from Taiwan’s Christian minority. The party looks set to repeat its mistakes this year, delaying the bill’s passage until 2018, or as some fear, 2019.
Seven months ago, the Taiwanese constitutional court found Taiwanese marriage law unconstitutional. The court chose not to immediately grant marriage equality, instead ordering the legislature to amend the law within two years. Failure to do so and the court will then finally abolish the law.
Yet, the DPP prioritised other legislation, squandering the “6-month golden window” to amend the law. The government promised to debate the marriage equality proposal during the current legislative period. But they have not announced the details of the bill, with many doubting it will be passed on time, if at all.
Debate over the bill centres on two proposals. Some legislators demand the government amend the civil code to grant all couples the same rights. Other legislators want a special law that allows for marriage equality, but does not grant equal rights.
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Tsai’s administration hinted that it may propose the latter bill. Writing on her Facebook page, Tsai said: “We are obligated to design a legal framework in line with the spirit of the grand justices’ interpretation, but we are also responsible for ensuring unity in society.”
A majority of Taiwanese support marriage equality. Yet, Taiwan’s Christian groups, who make up less than 5% of the island’s population, threatened to oust lawmakers who support the bill. Their bullying tanked the 2013 and 2016 attempts to bring marriage equality to Taiwan. The recent court ruling has not deterred them.
A Taipei lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, faces a recall campaign by Sun Chi-cheng, chairman of the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, a group opposed to marriage equality. Sun detests Huang’s support for amending the civil code, stating it will destroy Taiwanese family values.
Such pressure may explain Tsai’s lack of commitment to marriage equality. With local elections scheduled for late 2018, Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu suggests that if Tsai cannot pass the bill before January, the DDP will shelve it until 2019 to focus on campaigning.
Many believe Tsai will wait until May 2019, when the court’s ruling will strike down the law. While it would save her from Taiwan’s evangelical backlash, it would create logistical problems and further harm to Taiwan’s queer community.
If the law is struck down, many government offices will need to process marriage claims without clear guidelines. Hsu explains that “[t]he municipal registration office will not know what to do with their certificate and their IDs; hospitals will not know how to process them. A lot of contingency plans must be put in place.”
Meanwhile, the government will still deny queer couples marriage equality for the next 17 months. Some cannot afford to wait. The partner of Nelson Hu, a famous queer rights activist, is diagnosed with a rare form of hemangioma and could die. Hu has no legal say over his treatment.
Many in the queer community now feel betrayed by Tsai and the DPP. In an interview with the News Lens, Nelson Hu criticised the DPP for “[backtracking] on their promises”. Another disappointed couple lamented that “the politicians supported gay marriage as a way to win votes, but now it feels like we have been fooled.”
Desperate to avoid evangelical ire, Tsai may risk angering the queer community she sought to support. Hsu and commentators have urged the DPP to pass the bill by this session or to hold a special session in early 2018. The journey for many in the queer community to be treated as equal partners in society would be painfully prolonged otherwise.

3 minute read

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Indonesian Parties Changing Their Spots?

Tom Power
Kai Clark



“If I go to the parliament in Jakarta, it’s easy for me to just call up someone and ask ‘do you have time for a chat?’ They might be a member of parliament or head of a commission, but often times they are willing to talk. That’s the sort of access you just don’t get in Australia, especially if you’re a young guy that doesn’t have a name as a high-flying journalist or a diplomat or a professor.”
Tom Power is a PhD candidate studying how Indonesian parties adapt as they alternate in and out of office. His research revolves around case studies on the current governing party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), and on a former coalition party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
Tom researches by probing government and party officials on party fundraising and organisation. “To get these interviews,” he explains, “its sort of like snowballing.” For one of his first interviews, Tom sent an email to a rising star within the PKS — and, for a change of pace, got a response.
After interviewing her, she introduced him to other politicians who then introduced him to more party members. “Usually you interview them and they say ‘here’s the number of such-and-such’. It’s like you’re always on the hunt for someone to meet.”
His trophy collection includes several government ministers, the leader of PKS, and the secretary-general of PDIP. The secretary-general had noticed him at a couple of party events and one day asked Tom “to come up to Medan for a day and we’ll attend an event.” Flying first-class there, Tom spent the whole day chatting with him and attended meetings with other party elites.
The willingness of these politicians to talk to Tom is astounding, not just because of their seniority, but also because Tom is investigating how they funnel government money into party coffers.
“There’s a bit of a culture of impunity,” Tom tentatively remarks. “Indonesian politicians feel more comfortable talking to foreigners rather than local researchers — because they think a foreigner is less likely to dob them in.”
Indonesia ranks 90 out of 176 on the corruption perception index and much academic discourse on its public affairs analyses its patronage politics — where politicians offer money or power in exchange for votes.
Many politicians illegally take money from the state or use government positions to obtain kickbacks. And because Indonesian public subventions are too small to prop up most political parties, much of this money flows back into the party to feed itself.
But when parties are kicked out of government, they fall harder than a disowned trust fund baby. In 2010 the PKS, when it was in power, held a famous party conference in the Ritz Carlton, which Tom described as, “all-expenses paid, in the centre of Jakarta, with Swiss chefs preparing every meal.”
“And five years later, I went to the next party conference that was in a budget hotel in a satellite city of Jakarta. Outside the hotel, there was a market where party members were selling stuff to each other to raise money to donate back to the party. It was a classic example of the party basically going broke.”
Yet, PKS’s downfall was the eureka moment for Tom’s research. A year after losing power, PKS ousted many elderly leaders and replaced them with young blood. The new leaders immediately transformed the party from a pluralistic and inclusive party to an ideologically rigid party with a greater emphasis on grassroots activism.
The reforms helped the party field more competitive candidates, winning sub-national districts and more access to patronage. Party leaders also cultivated more zealous party sympathisers, increasing the flow of grassroots donations and expanding the pool of loyal recruits willing to run for elections.
Using the PDIP as another example, Tom explains that when in power it originally operated as a clientelistic party — which uses patronage politics to maintain its rule. But when voters kicked them out of office, they cleaned up their act and focused on ideological activism, fielding competitive candidates, and nurturing a strong party base. They had remoulded themselves as, what political scientists call, a ‘cadre party’. But, when back in government, they immediately relapsed into a clientelistic party.
Tom uses these examples to show the importance of understanding how political parties adapt as they shuffle through the revolving door of power. His research is also significant in that it explores a widely neglected field of political science.
“There is literature on party type, there is literature on change of party type, but there isn’t really literature on how being in and out of government affects party type. That’s something new. If these patterns are seen in other countries, this could be a new theory in political party operation.”

5 minute read

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A Tale of Two Chopsticks: Lingering Traces of Hong Kong’s SARS Epidemic

Kai Clark

Society and culture | Asia


SARS ravaged Hong Kong more a decade ago, infecting over 1,700 people and killing more than 300. Because of it, when I eat Dim Sum with my family in Hong Kong, I am presented with a cultural oddity. There are two pairs of chopsticks to eat with.
One pair is ivory-white, which you use to collect the food from the shared dish. The other pair is jet-black, which you use to eat the food from the plate. At least, that’s how I think it works. Watching my friends eat, they usually just take one pair and eat with it. Each tells me different answers for which one to use and admit that they don’t bother with the serving chopsticks at all.
This confusion is expected of a practice that finds its roots only 14 years ago. In Chinese culture, outside of extremely formal dinners or when eating with strangers, most people use the same pair of chopsticks to both collect and eat their meals. The same holds true in Beijing, Taipei, Singapore, and even in most of Hong Kong. Only upmarket restaurants provide two pairs of chopsticks.
So why have these restaurants abandoned centuries of traditional culture? The answer lies in the intensity of SARS’s attack on Hong Kong.
When the coronavirus spread throughout Hong Kong, hospitals were unsure how to respond -- allowing SARS to infect almost 400 medical workers and kill eight others. Nurses at the time found the panic was, “greater than the HIV/AIDS epidemic because of the swiftness of the outbreak.” Instructions for treating the patients kept changing, exacerbating the confusion.
Seeing that even doctors did not understand the disease, the public panicked and rumours on how SARS spread went viral. Over 100,000 people fled Hong Kong during the outbreak. Families of nurses refused to dine on the same table, fearing the disease would spread through chopsticks. Many people resorted to eating traditional Chinese foods believing it would protect them. Others wore facemasks, obsessively washed their hands, and avoided other people.
The restaurant industry lost over three billion dollars during the outbreak. Many restaurants shut down after losing over 90% of their business. Others survived by delivering takeaway orders as people were afraid to go outside. Reduced revenues forced many restaurants to lay off workers. Others willingly took no-pay leave, realising the extent of the crisis in the industry.
Desperate to attract patrons, restaurants promoted greater hygiene standards by requiring staff to wear surgical masks, check temperatures of customers at the door, disinfect tables, sterilise utensils, and provide two pairs of chopsticks to prevent the spread of saliva.
Once the medical community contained SARS, restaurants rolled back most of the adopted hygiene practices. However, many upscale restaurants chose to maintain some of these practices, including providing two pairs of chopsticks. This was despite research suggesting there is little health risk of SARS or other colds spreading through chopstick use.
The pandemonium of the SARS epidemic still remains fresh in many people’s memories. When I was in Hong Kong over a decade after SARS, I had lunch with a group of classmates in a dingy little food stall by the coast. We’d been hiking for 3 days, reeking of sweat and teen spirit. Settling in to eat I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug right in. My friend, whose family fled Hong Kong during SARS, had yelled at me to, “Use another pair of chopsticks!”

3 minute read

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Elderly Life in the Hidden World of Karaoke Kissas and Classrooms

Kai Clark
Benny Tong

Politics | East Asia


Benny Tong is a PhD candidate at the ANU studying the lives of elderly Japanese people in karaoke bars and how they seek fulfilment and purpose in the later stages of their lives. Born and raised in Singapore, he earned his Bachelors and Masters in Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore before coming to the ANU. As a teenager, he fell in love with J-Pop which ignited his passion for Japanese culture.
“Karaoke is a huge industry worth billions of dollars,” Benny explained, describing how the many sorts of karaoke chains in Japan accommodate everyone from millennials to older wealthy businessmen. Benny’s research, however, focuses on two types of karaoke venues: karaoke kissas which are small open-mic bars that are open during the day; and karaoke classrooms, where people learn how to sing karaoke from a trained instructor. These venues, Benny says, “lean towards a mature working-class demographic that are very much over sixty.”
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Benny explains how karaoke kissas provide a strong sense of community for many of these elderly people who don’t have a family to rely on. “The foundational concept of the karaoke kissa makes it a very inclusive place — as long as you pay the cover charge. There are a lot of regulars who all become friends, forming a tightly knit community.” Many of these regulars lament the demise of Japan’s traditional family structure, which has separated many elderly Japanese from their families.
During the interview, Benny showed me some karaoke magazines containing song scores used for study in karaoke classrooms. These classrooms provide many elderly people with a continued purpose in their life. At the end of the school year, the school organises recitals for the students, “where they can present what they’ve learned in front of an audience of peers, friends, and family. It’s a very important place for them to vindicate their continued participation in karaoke — as something to learn rather than passively enjoy.”

Many of these kissas and classrooms are located in working-class suburbs, far off the beaten track. These places usually lack windows and have two thick layers of doors, making it both inconspicuous and intimidating to enter.
Benny described to me, how lucky he was to find his first kissa. “The karaoke operator, or as they call them, ‘masters’, actually noticed me pacing back and forth outside, and beckoned me to come inside.” Once inside he was warmly welcomed into the community that was “happy to have a younger person among their midst to learn about their lifestyle”, he said.
“One important skill for fieldwork is getting on socially with other people. For me, coming in with a very open attitude towards learning what these people are doing and not making judgements, especially since you know so little, is important.”
"There’s a lot of them who very much desire to tell people about their life stories,” he said, “so they can pass on certain values or certain ideas that they’ve gained through their experience in life.”

Through studying these karaoke kissas and classrooms, Benny has found a widely-neglected space where many elderly Japanese sing with each other and laugh over drinks. Some have even rekindled their passion for love, despite losing their first partners to death and divorce. For many of these elderly people, singing Shōwa classics, like enka and kayōkyoku, helps reshape their identities in the face of old age, and provides a new direction in their lives. This contrasts very much to modern representations of elderly people as a drain on state healthcare, living their last days alone or in geriatric care.
Criticising the post-war experience of modernity, Benny argues that, “Japanese policy-makers, academics, and public discourse tend to think of elderly life as a period of life where bodily functions deteriorate to the point where you need institutionalised care. I find that actually, especially with these people that I’m working with, that’s simply not the case. They are growing old quite healthy. A lot of them take pride in the fact that they still maintain a very good standard of physical health. They tell me that they are very happy that they rarely go to the hospital. And it’s the singing that allows them to have them this kind of constant exercise and socialisation that keeps them both physically and mentally healthy.”
“So that's why I think studying Japan now is going to be a very valuable lesson for the rest of the world for learning how to cope with an ageing population in a manner that will treat old people with respect and honour. Growing old is not a problem. It is not a crisis. It is essential and unremovable part of what it means to live.”

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