Monday, August 26, 2013

Well being Gap

It has been a strangely surreal summer for me.  In quick succession, I spent time in Cambodia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA.

Cambodia and Rwanda are comparable in terms of income per capita, US$946 and $620 respectively.  Both had gone through horrible genocides, and both are dirt poor.  Based on the numbers, Cambodia is doing better than Rwanda.

But in Rwandan, both the government and the streets are much cleaner.  The Rwandans are also better dressed, more optimistic, and much happier with the government.  I have not seen any slums in Rwanda but there are plenty in Cambodia.  The young people in both countries are equally friendly and eager to learn.

Indonesia is doing comparatively better at an income per capita of US$3,557.  They are generally cleaner. Even the places where the poor people live are not as bad as those in Cambodia.  They have reasonably good schools and many universities.  They seem hopeful.

Hong Kong, at US$36,796, is theoretically in the big leagues of rich countries. Some people are super rich.  But much of the wealth exist only in the real estate bubble. Most people live in cramped apartments. The streets are not any cleaner than Rwanda’s.  They certainly have more computers, smart phones, and higher-bandwidth Internet access. But the people are not necessarily any more optimistic or happier.

Canada, at US$52,219, is even richer than the Americans on paper.  The houses are big, the lawns big and green, the air fresh, the food healthy, and the air cool.  The people are friendly and tolerant.  They, however, have difficulties coming up with a national identity - except, perhaps in saying that they are not Americans, and they do not offend people easily.

USA, at US$49,965, is certainly rich.  They created the PC,  iPhone, Google, Facebook, ...   Everything is bigger here, including the people.  The percentage of people who are obese, at 33% (quite likely an underestimation), is one of the highest in the world.  They are also using more of the oil, trees, minerals, and almost everything else than most other countries. Their universities are excellent, but the fees are about 100 times more expensive than Cambodia’s.

There are myriad reasons why this is the situation - much of it historical, cultural, and economical.  We cannot change the past.  But what are we going to do about it?  To make it better for everyone?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Alexander the Great

I have just finished reading a book "Alexander the Great" by Jacob Abbott, when I bumped into a bust of Alexander in Greektown (Danforth Avenue) in Toronto. When he set out to conquer Persia, he had only 35,000 men.  He conquered everything in his path, and by 30, created an empire stretching from Greece in Europe to the Himalayas in Asia.

What I learned this time was how he changed over the course of his victories.  When he was still a prince, he was described as having maturity of mind, far seeing, and reflective.  After conquering rebellious Thebes, he decided to destroy the city as punishment, as a measure not of angry resentment, but of calm adn deliberate retribution.  He discriminated carefully between those who had favoured the rebellion, and those who had been true to their allegiance to him.  After a battle, he went to see the wounded, listened to them, and recounted to them his own adventures.

After he defeated Darius, king of Persia, he conveyed to  Darius that he felt no animosity, that Darius was technically his enemy in an honest and honorable contest for the empire of Asia. 

However, prosperity and power were beginning to exert their usual unfavourable influence upon Alexander’s character. He became haughty, imperious and cruel.  He lost the modesty and gentleness, and began to assume the moral character of a military hero. 

He got exasperated by Betis at Gaza, who refused to surrender to him.  He was even wounded in the fighting.   When he finally conquered the city after a two-month siege, he treated the wretched captives with extreme cruelty.  He sold the inhabitants to slavery.  He ordered holes to be made through the heels of Betis, and passing a rope through them, had the body fastened to a chariot, and dragged about the city till no life remained.

He got himself declared a god at the temple of a famous deity Jupiter Ammon, at the Oasis of Siwah, in North Africa.

He lost the simplicity, the temperance, the moderation, and the sense of justice which characterize his early years. He adopted the dress and the luxurious manners of the Persians.  He lived in the palaces of the Persian kings, imitating their state and splendor.  He provided himself with 360 young females, in whose company he spent his time.

Then he started killing off the old generals such as Parmenio, who had helped him conquered the world.

After one more wild drinking party, he got a violent fever, and soon died. 

Even a great man such as Alexander succumb to the corrupting temptation of power.  It is no surprise that numerous not-so-great-but-who-believe-themselves-so men fall into the same fate.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is Hong Kong losing its mind?

A primary school teacher argued with the police on the street over what she considered a case of selective enforcement - she thought the police was favoring pro-establishment protestors. In the heat of the moment, she used some cuss words.

The pro-communist press jumped on her.  Some pro-establishment types jumped on her.  That’s to be expected. 

The police jumped on her.  That’s also also expected, even though the police is supposed to be impartial in these matters.

Then the Chief Executive demanded a report from the Education Bureau. Doesn’t the Chief Executive have more serious matters to attend to, such as the reform of the electoral system?  The large number of people in poverty? The loss of competitiveness against countries such as Singapore? ...?

Then the case was handed to the police unit responsible for “serious crimes”.  Since when is cursing a serious crime? That’s scary.

Are the pro-establishment types so out of its wits in handling the attacks from the pan-democrats that they are grasping at anything they can - something as trivial as a cursing primary school teacher - as a weapon to be used against the pan-democrats?

Is Hong Kong collectively losing its mind?  When everyone is driving themselves into a frenzy, who is driving the train that is Hong Kong?  That is a worrying thought.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

How can we help?

The trip to Rwanda taught us a lot of things.  In the beginning, we heard that we would be going to a community center for youths, run by African Enterprises; and that they wanted us to build a computer laboratory and run some computer classes for the children.  This we would have been very happy to do, since we have had some experience doing that in other places such as Gansu and Cambodia.

As time progressed, however, AE Rwanda convinced us that we could make greater contributions spending at least part of the time training their staff on using the Internet, particularly social networks like Facebook, so that they can do a better job serving the people of Rwanda.

Once we arrived, there were other discoveries - their computer network was in such a poor state that part of our team spent several days fixing their computer network, and installing a Virtual Private Network for them.  And we spent several days training their staff in using the VPN as well as the Internet. As a result, AE staff can communicate over the network over the whole country much more efficiently.  For that AE was very grateful.  They told us that other overseas team usually bring them gifts of “things”; but we brought their people skills that they can use.

We learnt that in order to be really helpful, we have to be willing to listen, and to serve in ways that they really need it. And we have to have good skills in the first place.  We were very happy that we brought some very good students this time - students will good skills and great attitude.  We changed their assignments so many times, often asking them to so things that they have not learnt - they have to improvise and learn quickly something that they have to do or teach in the following day!

We observed a number of vivid examples what AE meant.  We happened to pass by a computer laboratory of a local university (not our collaborating NGO).  There were ~40 computers that were set up neatly on clean and tidy work benches.  For 3 days we could not see anyone using those computers.  Those computers were probably donated by some well-meaning overseas donors. For some reason, they were not being used.  Based on past experience, the most probably reason is that they university does not know how to make use of them; perhaps they do not have teachers who can teach those computer classes.  It is also possible that they are afraid that the student might misuse or damage the computers. The sad thing is, in a few years time, the computer would still be brand new, but have become obsolete and unusable.

Now we tell our partner NGOs, including African Enterprise, that they should not be afraid to use the computers, and even break them (not on purpose, of course).  Because if they do, we will try to bring some more.  AE believes also that it is the people that is important.  They are very keen on helping their people to set up co-operatives, to learn to start small businesses, to do the accounting, to plant passion fruit, to run a public toilet, to raise bees, to set up a butcher’s shop, to build fish farms, to set up kindergartens, ...  The focus is not on giving the co-operatives a lot of money, but on training them on the necessary skills to run the business. 

We are learning a lot from this experience.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Amazing Jews

The book club at our church is studying the history of the Jews.  To prepare for the talk last Saturday, I have been reading Paul Johnson’s "A History of the Jews" and other material.  I am not totally ignorant of the history of the Jews prior to this study.  Yet I could not help but be amazed by the dramatic twists in their fortune. 

The history can be considered to start with Abraham, probably around 1800 BC.   His grandson, Jacob, moved the whole gang down to Egypt because of a famine. By the time they escaped from Egypt around 1400 BC, it was estimated that there might be around 1 million of them.  After settling in Canaan, they prospered and there were 5 million in Solomon’s mini-empire around 1000 BC. 

Then a long decline set in, culminating in the exile to Assyria and then another exile to Babylon in 586 BC.  At that low point, probably no more than 300,000 of them were left. 

Then Cyrus allowed some of them to return to Canaan, and they recovered slowly.  At the time of Herod and Jesus at the junction of BC/AD, there again were around 4 million of them.

Then disaster struck again, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Jews were scattered, to Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor, Spain, Eastern Europe, Russia, ...  Time and again, they were expelled, confined to ghettos, ...  The total population hovered around 1 million for 17 centuries. 

Starting around 1700 AD, the oppression of the Jews eased in many countries in Europe, and their numbers grew dramatically, just like the rest of Europe. By the eve of the Holocaust, it was estimated that there were 16 million Jews, all over the world, with about 2/3 of them in Europe, and 1/3 in North America.

The Holocaust killed off ~4 million of them.  It triggered a wave of sympathies which led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1947.  By 2010, it is estimated that 5.8 million of them live in Israel, 5.6 million in North America, 1.6 million in Europe, and less than 1 million in the other countries, for a total of 13.5 million.

Starting with the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, ..., Spanish, English, French, Austrians, Russians, Germans, Arabs, ..., for more than 3,000 years, they were persecuted, forced into hard labour, expelled from many countries, almost exterminated from Europe, ... For almost 2,000 years, they have no homeland of their own.  Yet they have survived, grabbed a homeland for themselves, and are apparently prospering once again.

Isn’t it amazing? 

Friday, August 02, 2013

Which is worse?

The Japanese politicians are visiting again the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals have been enshrined.

Which is worse?

The Japanese politicians’ continued denial of atrocities committed during the Second World War, such as the Nanjing Massacre, the exploitation of “Comfort Women”, etc.?

Or the Chinese Communist leaders’ continued denial of atrocities such as the Tiananmen Massacre, the persecution of dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, etc.?

Perhaps they are equally despicable.  Both are evil and inexcusable.