Grills and window thieves in Bangladesh

Reza Mazumder

Society and culture


Look up amongst the throng of high rise buildings housing residents in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and perhaps you'll wonder why so many windows in Bangladesh are barred. Largely designed to keep thieves out, and to avoid those looking out of their balconies from falling out, having window grills in Bangladesh is as common-place as having a roof.

The simplest design for a window grill is made up of many straight bars that run parallel against the fewer bars running across perpendicular-wise. The pattern becomes a series of consecutive rectangles running both vertically and horizontally. The bars are made of metals that would require industrial grade machinery to break, and even then, would take too long to bend out of shape. This helps to keep intruders out, dissuading thieves from attempting to break the bars and rob an apartment or business complex.

[caption id="attachment_6568" align="aligncenter" width="326"] A simple window grill[/caption]

Intricate designs made with a series of straight lines are also popular choices when deciding what kind of grill to place across your windows. Popular patterns include criss-cross patterns and plus symbols. Shapes like triangles, diamonds and occasionally 5-plus edge shapes like pentagons and hexagons will be used to make patterns that add to the architectural aestheticism of what is otherwise just a plain window. Particularly remarkable or prestigious buildings in Bangladesh will have incredibly complex patterns that form along their windows, often taking the shape of a flower such as a lotus – the national flora of the country.

Besides preventing thieves from scouring up the drain pipes and breaking into your house, window grills have practical uses too. Most apartments have window grills made up of long rectangles suitable to hang clothing on. This helps make up for the lack of space in Bangladesh to have seperate clotheslines, however clotheslines are often installed on the flat roofs of residential buildings for all the tenants to use.

Window grills can also provide some privacy by obstructing the view of someone looking in.  The incredible proximity of buildings in Bangladesh can sometimes make it a little too easy for a nosy busy-body to try and get a peek at you while doing something you’d rather do without an audience.

Designed both for security, grandeur and clothes drying, window grills are a multi-purpose feature of building exteriors in Bangladesh that provide more than just something to look at out of the window.

2 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!”

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The Rising Islands of Oceania

Simon Fenske

Society and culture | Pacific


The volcanic island of Ambae in northern Vanuatu rose from obscurity into world news in September after ash and gases began spewing ominously from its volcanic crater. It’s 11,000 residents were promptly evacuated to neighbouring islands in anticipation of further eruptions.

I’ve spent eight months on Ambae, a mere six kilometres from the brooding crater. Therefore these developments were particularly concerning to me. But what struck me more was that a place I came to appreciate for the startling beauty of its landscapes and the incredible resilience of its people, was now being broadcast to the world through a lens of vulnerability and despair. This is the same lens framing atoll nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, sometimes even the entire Oceania region, as the “sinking islands,” or the victims of climate change.

But just as Ambae continues to rise from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the people of Oceania are rising to the challenge of climate change with resilience and resourcefulness. Stories of disaster need to be told, but an exclusive focus on these stories robs the people of Oceania of their agency and reduces them to powerless victims of the world around them.

I want to tell a different story, a story both about climate change and about Ambae. A story written not by rising sea levels or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, but by people, adaptive agents of their own futures.

[caption id="attachment_6560" align="aligncenter" width="499"] Not your typical "sinking island." Ambae rises steeply from its rocky coast.[/caption]

Climate change results in increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. On Ambae this was demonstrated by Cyclone Pam, which struck the island in March 2015. This was immediately followed by a severe eight-month El Niño drought that was widely perceived as the worst in many decades. The combined effects of these two events resulted in severe food and water shortages.

When 80 year old Loren, a chief of Saranamundu village, saw the challenges that these extreme weather events posed, he responded in a way that was both intuitive and innovative. Trekking daily from his coastal village to an altitude of up to 1000 metres, he began clearing and planting gardens in the cloud forest of Ambae’s volcanic dome. Many others in Saranamundu soon followed suit.

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Loren was drawing on both living memory and oral tradition that recount gardens as traditionally planted at high altitude where native varieties of taro and banana thrive in moist soils and frequent cloud cover. It was only with the introduction of new coastal crops such as cassava, cacao and new varieties of taro and banana from the late 19th century that agricultural livelihoods moved closer to the coast. The current rise of high altitude food gardens also means an increased focus on native crops, particularly taro and banana.

Traditional agricultural systems are once again on the rise, and the impetus for their revival is very contemporary. It is an innovative response to the new challenges posed by climate change.

[caption id="attachment_6561" align="aligncenter" width="561"] Taro and banana garden in the cloud forest at an altitude of roughly 600 metres. The ocean is visible below in the distance.[/caption]

Over in neighbouring Vuinggalato, a village of several hundred people scattered across Ambae’s most rugged valley, locals are pioneering an innovative solution to their chronic water shortages. Devoid of perennial rivers, fresh water on Ambae was traditionally collected from ganu (springs), found only in a limited number of locations across the island. While rainwater stored in cement wells and plastic tanks have generally improved water accessibility in recent decades, these reservoirs quickly dwindle in times of drought.

The people of Vuinggalato responded by returning to their ganu, located in the mountains behind the village at an altitude of over the 800m. Using plastic piping and cement wells, spring water is now diverted to a set of storage tanks, from which it is distributed to a number of taps for ease of access throughout the village. Vuinggalato’s water security and resilience throughout the 2015 drought is inspiring neighbouring villages to follow their lead, with a similar system currently under construction in Loren’s village of Saranamundu.

[caption id="attachment_6562" align="aligncenter" width="456"] Vuinggalato locals stand in front of their ganu.[/caption]

Much like a volcanic eruption, the potential impacts of climate change in Oceania are truly terrifying and cataclysmic. But the people of Ambae and wider Oceania aren’t just sinking; they’re rising to the challenge of climate change in unique and innovative ways. Stories of vulnerability and victimhood are needed to help us understand the urgency of climate change mitigation. But perhaps these other stories, of agency and adaptability, will point the way towards realistic solutions tackling climate change not just in Oceania, but across the globe.

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Should we boycott Myanmar?

Mish Khan

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


In tourism brochure clichés, Myanmar is often referred to as the last jewel of Asia. After fifty years of isolation under military rule, the newly open Southeast Asian nation conjures quaint images of the last untouched frontier in a shrinking world. Although we must remind ourselves that such romanticisation can be misplaced, given the authoritarian regime was a harsh reality rather than a luxurious abstinence from modernisation, many foreigners are curiously enthusiastic about visiting the country.

As an undergraduate focusing on Myanmar studies and the Burmese language, across my degree I have had numerous friends approach me to discuss plans to visit the country, famous for its glittering pagodas, ancient temples and rich cultural diversity.

When people learn I study Myanmar, they often gush to me about their own experiences in the country. From backpackers I have chatted with in cheap hostels in Cambodia, to wealthy club-goers smoking cigarettes in Singapore, almost everyone had a positive story to share.

However, recently the tone surrounding this conversation has changed. When hairdressers, university peers, strangers at parties or uber drivers ask me what I study, their first question is now about the Rohingya crisis, or negative feelings stemming from media coverage of the situation.

A lot of this discussion has focused on whether it is ethical to visit Myanmar, given recent widespread attention to the mass exodus of the Rohingya from Rakhine state. People do not want to be seen as financially or ethically condoning this traumatic situation—who wants to look back across history and say they supported what has already been called a genocide?

Therefore, it is worth speculating on two things: how this most recent wave of international outrage could dent Myanmar’s tourism figures, and whether foreigners should boycott the country, for fear of lining an authoritarian pocket.

Tourism growth is important for Myanmar’s government. For some background, it is difficult to accurately gauge tourism statistics in Myanmar. In 2014, Myanmar claimed to receive 3 million international tourists. However, at least two-thirds of this figure were day-trippers from Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh. The number peaked in 2015 at 4.68 million. Unsurprisingly the following year, total tourist figures dropped dramatically to 2.9 million when conflict in north and north-eastern Myanmar rendered day-tripping more difficult.

A different measurement of tourism in Myanmar has been airport arrivals—this figure rose from 593,000 in 2012 to 1.08 million in 2016. Yet only 48.2 percent of those arriving in Yangon International airport in 2014 did so on a tourist visa, and it is estimated only 50-60 percent of arrivals in 2016 were purely for leisure. Measuring the sale of tickets at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most famous tourist attraction, revealed 505,351 tickets were sold in 2014—far from the three million tourists statistic—and in 2016, 600,000 tickets were sold, a contrast to the 2.9 million total tourist figures.

The Myanmar Ministry of Tourism plans to accommodate 3.5 million tourists by the end of 2017, and claims to have hosted 2.27 million tourists from January to August 2017. Given the difficult in knowing if tourism is even really booming to begin with, in evaluating the impact of the Rohingya crisis on Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry by the end of 2017, we should be cautious to not make sweeping claims about how exactly figures did or did not drop, and instead carefully examine airport arrivals, ticket sales to sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, and day-trip percentages to gauge the real impact the crisis will have on Myanmar’s 2017 tourism figures. Currently, some coverage suggests the crisis has taken a toll on hotel bookings, particularly visits to Rakhine-based attractions such as Ngapali beach and Mrauk-U, but only time will reveal the true impact.

So, is it ethical to visit Myanmar? Most people asking me this question are concerned for two key reasons—they do not want to financially assist the regime’s conduct towards the Rohingya, and they do not want to be seen as morally endorsing the Rohingya crisis, or at best, being complacent to it.

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With regard to lining the wrong pockets, opponents of a tourism boycott argue that tourism infrastructure was mainly government-owned in the past and such a case could be made, however today hotels, restaurants, guides, drivers, hawkers and vendors are privately owned and employ ordinary people. Accordingly, a tourism boycott would have little impact on the government while adversely impacting many who have built a livelihood around tourism.

Others may argue that the government still owns substantive cogs in the tourism machine, such as airlines, or that it will benefit from tax revenue raised via tourism. Regardless of what you think, there is lots of literature suggesting economic sanctions in Myanmar never really had an impact in its democratic transition, so it is tough to conclude that a tourism boycott for economic purposes would now suddenly change the government’s attitude.

But what about more generally visiting Myanmar—is chowing down on Shan noodles and taking a selfie outside Shwedagon Pagoda normalising the Rohingya exodus? I think there are numerous factors why this is not necessarily the case.

Reverting back to avoiding the Myanmar people is one of the worst things we can do. Transitioning from a politically oppressive society with little access to information—to most of the country having Facebook within a few years—means the spread of misinformation and mistrust is particularly potent in Myanmar. Even within Myanmar, understanding of the Rakhine situation has been poor due to a history of travel limitations. In a global era of “fake news”, one of the most worthwhile tools we have is human relationships. To the common person in Myanmar, exposure to other norms will not come from catchy think-pieces, it will come from human interaction.

We should also keep visiting Myanmar because even beyond the Rohingya crisis, democracy and rule of law in the country is very fragile. A recent speaker I witnessed described the environment in the country as a collective PTSD. As a young person who has been to Myanmar many times, including with several Australian friends, I think cross-cultural interactions have been very valuable in prompting all of us to be more open to reframing our thoughts, especially if thinking is embedded in historical trauma.

And most of all, I have had people from Myanmar take me more seriously when they know I have bothered to get to know their country. Passionate strangers on Facebook or Twitter with contrarian political beliefs to mine considerably open up when I can blurt out some basic Burmese, reference my time in the country, and express an opinion as someone with a deep fondness for Myanmar, as opposed to looking to win a moral battle for ego points.

Therefore, I hope to keep encouraging those around me to spend time in the country and with its people, now more so than ever.

7 minute read

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China’s internal migrants: Flowing into big cities – but ending up with disappointment?

Ruiying Zheng



When I first talked to Xiao Zhang he was packing his bag in a tiny, shabby room near a construction site where he worked. He has lived there with his wife and other fellow workers since he came to this city.

“I fled from a remote village in Guangxi province to Shenzhen to change my life three years ago.” He said. “But now I realise it is much harder than I expected. I could never actually become part of this city, so I am planning to leave.”

In fact, Xiao Zhang is just one of more than 280 million migrant workers in China. There are also a great number of fresh graduates and office workers moving from rural or less developed areas to large cities.

Today, China’s internal migration is characterised by a flow of people, especially the youth, moving into first-tier cities located in developed provinces in search of fortune, status and a higher quality of life. Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are their main destinations.

It is of great significance to raise people’s awareness of the current situation confronted by rural migrants as a disadvantaged group, and tackling the issues arising from this mass migration. It also helps China’s government to improve essential services that these rural migrants risk losing when they move to the big cities.

[caption id="attachment_6466" align="aligncenter" width="511"] Source: 'The Impact of Chinese Migration', The Economist, 2012[/caption]

The importance of studying urban migration in China
China’s rural-to-urban migration is a good case study for people who are interested in or doing development studies. The phenomenon of population movement is an important indicator of urbanisation in the modern world.

Regional migration also changes the spatial distribution of China’s population, thereby posing challenges to urban land use such as expanding overall built land and increasing proportion of residential land. It also results in the expansion of urban infrastructure systems. This increasing demand on land and urban facilities could lead to potential environmental disturbance that goes against principles of building resilient and sustainable cities.

[caption id="attachment_6471" align="aligncenter" width="540"] Source: 'Land-use change in China,' National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2004 - 2010[/caption]

Additionally, demographics of a country plays an essential role in its economic, political, cultural and societal domains. Studying urban migration helps the government to formulate appropriate policies and regulations for the society as a whole

New attitudes and reforms needed
Since many rural migrants are under great pressure due to the barriers they come across in terms of housing, job seeking, and education for children, is it really worthwhile for people to leave their hometown and struggle in big cities?

While it may be better for them to weigh the opportunities and difficulties of their migration rather than blindly following the trend, the government is still responsible for reforms that aim to assist and support these rural migrants.

For those studying China’s phenomena of rural to urban migration, there are key points to consider when making recommendations for effective policies that can mitigate the threats rural migrants face during their resettlement.

The government is expected to construct affordable and low-rent houses. For example, the average housing price in Beijing is more than 50,000 in RMB (nearly 10,000 in AUD) per square meter which is too expensive for low-income migrants. They can hardly afford their accommodation if there are no alternatives provided.

Relaxation of institutional barriers to civil rights is also crucial. Social welfare systems in China are largely based on the Hukou (known as the household registration system) which limits rural migrants’ access to equal rights such as voting and medical insurance.

Another big concern is their children’s education, so the implementation of preferential schooling policies for their children is required. Left-behind children in rural China has become a social concern because the lack of parental accompany and care has profound impacts on their future outcomes.

It is also helpful to provide subsidies for their transportation costs. China’s great migration during the lunar New Year is the largest movement in the world. It is reported that some poor migrants have to travel approximately two thousand kilometers by motorcycle to head home for reunions.

The most difficult factor can be the changes in Chinese society’s attitudes towards these rural to urban migrants because of prejudices they face in decision-making processes as a marginalised community. They sometimes receive disrespect or even discrimination from citizens, which leads to disharmony in society.

The study of China’s rural to urban migration can help to motivate the Chinese government and China’s general public to pay more attention to this imperative issue. It also contributes to eliminating the potential problems that come with the inequality suffered by these rural migrants who seek only to live a better life.

4 minute read

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Trading freedom for functionality: China’s app censorship

Dominic Harvey-Taylor

Society and culture


WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app is an integral part of Chinese contemporary culture. The app has over 800 million active users, 90% being Chinese, and is used to conduct virtually every sort of transaction imaginable in China.

The app is also highly censored and heavily monitored by the Chinese Central Government.

I first came across WeChat while researching what essential apps I needed to download before studying in Shanghai for a semester. Amongst useful dictionary apps and metro guides, the website China Highlights proclaims that WeChat is ‘the most popular messaging service in China’ and is a great way to keep in touch with people. The unwritten downside of the app being, that in using it, I would end up feeling like I was surrendering some form of privacy as well as self-censoring my speech.

Not really having any misgivings at the time, I downloaded WeChat and a few weeks later arrived in China. Almost immediately I realised the website had completely undersold the popularity and versatility of this app.

WeChat is an all-in-one platform for messaging, sharing photos, posting status updates and subscribing to newsfeeds. WeChat also functions as an e-wallet. You can use it to purchase movie tickets, transport, send money to your friends or even scan QR codes to pay vendors directly instead of using cash or card.

During my time in Shanghai, I used WeChat to split bills with friends, pay for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and to keep up to date with local and international news.

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I used the app to communicate with my friends and my teachers. It was also a great way for me to connect with Chinese and other foreign students who were more comfortable and confident communicating via a messaging app than in person.

Although I was in Shanghai to help improve my Mandarin, I found myself using the app’s translation function fairly regularly to help interpret various notices sent to me by the university.

While using the app, part of me was a bit disturbed by my heavy reliance on the service because of WeChat’s biggest drawback: it’s censorship.

It is no secret that the internet in China is heavily monitored and censored. Websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked – a big part of the reason why WeChat has grown to be so dominant in China.

Private WeChat messages containing controversial phrases, including ‘Free Tibet’, ‘1989 Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Falun Gong’, are intercepted and then blocked, with no notification to the user. This is especially the case in group chats, where the government monitors for any gathering on online turning into a protest on the streets.

Unlike Facebook, where users can add basically anyone as contacts, see mutual friends and create groups with thousands of members with relative ease, WeChat requires a person’s phone number, QR code or unique user ID to add them into your contacts. There is a 500-person cap on the number of participants in group chats.

These measures make life a whole lot more difficult if you’re an activist wanting to organise a million-person protest movement across the country.

Though I wasn’t particularly desperate to start a political movement, or motivated to promote discussion about controversial issues, I still couldn’t shake off the feeling of discomfort while using WeChat to message people. It’s disheartening to be in a university environment, communicating with people from China and across the globe, using a platform that is fundamentally restrictive about certain topics and ideas.

What’s more disconcerting, is that the censorship of WeChat messages isn’t exclusive to China. Anyone who initially sets up the app with a Chinese mobile number is susceptible to censorship overseas, a fact I only became aware of after returning home to Australia.

I still use WeChat to communicate with friends in China and elsewhere.. For many of my friends, it is the only social media platform they use. Regardless of the feelings one may have about using a censored service, the prevalence and usefulness of WeChat is such that it’s almost impossible to function without it.

Inevitably it seems people will always choose a highly restrictive, but highly effective social media platform over none at all.

3 minute read

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Crest of the wave or dead in the water? Australian regional climate leadership

Toby Warden

Society and culture | Pacific


Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on 1st of June 2017 has lowered America into an enormous chasm of moral inferiority that Australia cannot afford to replicate for the sake of its Pacific neighbours.

Trump’s rationale is typical of his international relations psyche: overtly transactional and business-like. Any outcome in the international realm that doesn’t deliver fruitful benefits to the US economy is regarded with scepticism and deemed deleterious.

Pacific island nations do not carry economic importance to the United States but they do possess enormous strategic significance to Australia’s defence and security. The 2016 Defence White Paper includes that “we cannot effectively protect Australia if we do not have a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and South Pacific (comprising Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries). Australia must play a leadership role in our immediate neighbourhood”.

A secure Pacific island region is a core Australian national interest. Australia has a moral responsibility to be the guarantor and protector of Pacific security. Without American influence, the question of our regional leadership has become more important.

Worthy of greater alarm is the threat currently experienced by what Australia defines as crucial in the national security interest. Kiribati is now threatened by a predicted rise in sea levels over 6 feet by 2100 when the land itself only sits at 6 feet above water. A World Bank report found that the village of Bikenibeu, home to 6,500  could be submerged by 2050 with current rates of sea level rise. In 2015, Cyclone Pam affected 45% of Polynesia’s Tuvalu, displacing 10000 people.

An increase in global temperatures over 1.5 degrees would doom Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. As Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, emphatically put it: “As Pacific Islanders, we are fighting for our very survival…[our] existence as sovereign nations with land and coastlines hangs in the balance.”

This seemingly brings me to Australia’s highly politicised, yet rarely securitised, energy and economic policies. Australia is the largest exporter of coal. In 2015-16, Australia exported 388 million tonnes of coal, and contributed to a staggering 30% of the coal export markets, making Australia a global leader in emission fostering.

Coal proponents regularly prioritise the job creation, increased standards of living and strong and stable economic growth gained from this reliable commodity. Coal exports was largely Australia’s key to survival during the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and contributes to a resilient economy that hasn’t experienced a recession since 1991.

Canberra must remain vigilant to not develop the same psyche that pushed the US to withdraw from Paris. The domestic is undoubtedly important, but the regional, and international, is just as significant. Lowy fellow, Greg Colton argues that ‘no argument for domestic job creation carries much weight for island nations who are considering how to relocate their entire populations because of climate change. It is seen not only as a very selfish act from a supposed friend, but also ultimately foolish.’

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To become the regional leader that Canberra strives to be it will first need to adjust its solipsistic energy and commodity policies. The Pacific Islands Development Forum, a regional forum promoting sustainable development, urged for an international moratorium on the expansion of new fossil-fuel extraction industries. While this decision would adjust the economy to finally ascend renewable investment above coal and other fossil-fuel industries, this future looks bleak. Both major parties are backed by coal-based industries and there are continuing propositions for new mines, such as the Adani thermal coal mine in Queensland.

But if long-term energy solutions and altruistic concerns of humanity are not enough, this decision could improve Canberra’s diplomatic perception and influence. Wesley Morgan suggests that Pacific Islands are beginning to engage in a wider range of multilateral platforms (that do not include Australia) in order to pursue their survivalist interests. The extent to which Canberra’s voice will retain projection, reputation and influence is at risk if its priorities in the Pacific are not properly addressed.

Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji at July’s Climate Action Pacific Partnership Event stated “to allow sovereign nations to slip beneath the rising seas altogether to preserve the economies and lifestyles of others would be an act of unparalleled selfishness and injustice. And any global citizen who believes in justice has no moral choice other than to side with you in your struggle.”

The Pacific nations are watching Australia’s every move. Malcolm Turnbull had the opportunity to champion climate change as a security issue at the past G20 leaders’ meeting. The next opportunity to convey Canberra’s selflessness and supposedly espoused justice will with the Adani coal mine. We cannot rely on the United States when it comes to this national security concern. In order to secure the national interest and pursue the moralism embedded in Australian values, Canberra cannot be like Trump.

3 minute read

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The strange invisibility of Australian aid

Elizabeth Underwood

International relations | Pacific


Australian aid is a heavily debated topic. How much should we give? Who decides? How do we decide?

In his most recent book, The Foreign Dilemma of Aid, Jack Corbett explores the history of foreign aid given by Australia, and looks at reasons why it’s changed.

“When Australians are asked, “Should we give aid?” the answer is almost always a resounding “Yes”. But, when asked, “How much do we give?” the answer is often “too much.” There is no question that Australians are supportive of foreign aid. However, this support is shallow”, Corbett states.

How much aid Australia gives fluctuates depending on government. We had cuts under Fraser and under Hawke-Keating with a huge rise in aid under Howard, and no real change under Rudd. Now again, we see more cuts.

It is important to acknowledge, as Corbett says, that “aid does not exist in a vacuum”.

Factors contributing to fluctuations of aid decided by expert policy makers include the absence of the Australian population holding the government accountable, and the personality and interests of the ministers in government, which Corbett refers to as “court politics”. To say that one party favors foreign aid more than the other would be incorrect. Both parties have increased and decreased the aid budget. Aid is often vulnerable to huge gestures. In cases of natural disasters, public interest is high and while major cuts are made often for internal political agendas.

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“Australians care, when they see images of natural disaster on the news they add appeals for support. But they don’t care enough for aid to be something that decides elections.”

Corbett spoke of three forms of legitimacy that ministers have aimed for in the past. The first was policy legitimacy. Aid can be used for multiple policy purposes, which means it can be used for political agendas. Corbett observed a pattern for new governments to cut aid when elected, and then later expand its budget the more time they spend in office.

Second is technical legitimacy, which emerged because of the belief that aid policy needs expert knowledge to be done well. Professionals crafting policy increases this legitimacy, but it also means that only a limited few have control of aid distribution. Because the budget is only controlled by a few and usually grows with more time the government spends in office, the budget is often considered too large and trust in the expert policy makers decreases over time.

The third form of legitimacy explained by Corbett was administrative legitimacy. This involves both policy development and program delivery. Both of these are pulled in opposite directions, as policy development is criticized from the outside, and program delivery challenges come from inside the government. When the two are balanced, the minister and government’s reputations are protected, and administrative legitimacy is achieved.

While identifying these three forms of legitimacy, Corbett also states that “I’m not saying you can look at policy in different points in time and say “at this time there was technical legitimacy, and this one shows policy legitimacy”and so on. At each point in time, aid will reflect a mixture of all. Legitimacy is a trajectory, which can explain the past, and influence how we think about aid in future.”

Corbett’s study of the history of Australian aid has shown that legitimate aid policy is almost impossible to achieve without participation from the Australian public. Balancing all three forms of legitimacy, each with their own aims and interests, has proved close to impossible. Australian aid is therefore passive to its fate of constant instability.

Shallow engagement of the Australian public is a key reason why aid is able to fluctuate with differing governments. A key question we can ask is “Would increased Australian public engagement stabilise aid?”. In question time, Corbett noted that this would be unlikely, and that instead, a holistic understanding how ‘court politics’, individual governments and domestic political contexts contribute to aid policy is more beneficial.  

3 minute read

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The Billion-yen bear

Jade Boyle

Society and culture | East Asia


When the earthquake in April 2016 hit Kumamoto City, the internet lit up with a very peculiar question: “Is Kumamon okay?”

At 1.5 metres tall, the cuddly black bear from Kyushu with rosy cheeks is arguably Japan’s most famous mascot. After the bear’s 2011 win at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix that saw him voted in as number one mascot in Japan, his popularity sky rocketed. Kumamon is now more than just a tourism ploy for Kumamoto Prefecture. His popularity has changed his position as a spokesperson for local Kumamoto goods .

Before the earthquake in 2016, Kumamon had reportedly generated 124.4 billion yen (148.27 billion AUD) in revenue for Kumamoto, with around 400 applications submitted a month for permission to use his likeness. As of 2016 Kumamon had his face plastered on anywhere between 8,000 to 20,000 products, taking a regular object into a must-have character product.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake that Kumamon’s position had changed. He was seen as a potential 'conductor' of information for the outside world on Kumamoto. During the initial period of the quake, many people had expected the bear’s Twitter feed to update outsiders on what Kumamoto was experiencing. But, Kumamon was absent from Twitter, leaving followers to wonder and worry about the effects of the quake. The results of the earthquake saw 50 people dead, over 3,000 injured, around 44,000 people evacuated, and multiple homes destroyed. It was a massive shock for residents.

[caption id="attachment_6176" align="aligncenter" width="284"] Kumamon's image can be found throughout Kumamoto prefecture. Flickr: jpellgen [/caption]

This may come as a shock to some people, but Kumamon’s silence turned out to be a great source of debate on whether or not Kumamon’s Twitter feed could have been utilized to share information. A person who dresses like Kumamon needs to follow a very specific dress code to maintain the character's integrity. This actually requires a person to physically wear the bear-suit and then tweet on Kumamon’s behalf. Those experiencing the earthquake at the time would've had greater concerns beyond needing to play the role of a mascot updating his Twitter feed.

Yet as of May 2017 Kumamon has over 623,000 followers on Twitter and many maintain the view that the events of the 2016 earthquake should have been reported through Kumamon's social platform.

In the absense of this, the city had started a trending #Kumamon hashtag that let the people of Kumamoto affected by the earthquake share their stories with the rest of the world. This resulted in over 9,000 tweets, with some even being responded to with a visit from Kumamon. A recent documentary shows how Kumamon brought the public's attention to volunteers, local heroes, and survivors of all ages who had worked to help their communities in previous earthquake events.

[caption id="attachment_6189" align="aligncenter" width="448"] Even Matt Damon knows Kumamon. Flickr: Dick Thomas Johnson[/caption]

From an outsiders’ perspective, this may all seem very strange. A bear mascot can’t be that important. But Kumamon has been influential for Kumamoto in a social sense, and as a reliable source of income for the prefecture. In fact, there are mascots all throughout Japan that hope to emulate Kumamon’s success. Mascots can be found representing governments, cities, towns, organisations and events. Mascots are often closely tied to current affairs in Japan. Their appearances engage audiences within areas they are associated with and seek to bring in tourism to what could otherwise be an unknown area. Their likeness is often exploited in the making of souvenirs. Japan has a strong gift-giving culture, so when it comes to souvenir shopping, a mascot’s face can help sell local products to visiting tourists looking for gifts to give to their families.


[caption id="attachment_6181" align="aligncenter" width="469"] Kumamon souvenirs. Flickr: jpellgen[/caption]

Kumamon's creator Hiromi Kano, who is a mascot designer, has strong opinions about her creations. Seeing her characters as more than just costumes, she says that the appeal of mascots in Japan is in how people can engage with them. Public displays of affection are often kept to a minimum by unspoken cultural norms. Kano believes Japan to be conservative, and thus the appeal of these fictional characters comes from their ability to provide a space or reason for people to be publicly affectionate without reprimand. She has continued to make popular mascots since Kumamon’s debut.

The way mascots in Japan are being engaged with can slowly evolve what their intended duty as a public symbol should be. Kumamon, whether you love him or hate him, is not likely to lose his appeal in any near future. Given the amount of social and economic aid he provides, there is indeed more to what is first meant in his crowned title as 'billion-yen bear.'

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