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Globalization – widening the gap of inequality? February 3, 2007

Posted by genchan in East Asia, General, Globalization, Government, Japan, Singapore.
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Much efforts have been put into defining ‘globalization’ and yet the term remains as elusive as ever. In essence, it is used to refer to the rapid spread of information, technology, ideas, goods and services, labor and capital across national borders causing the thick ‘walls’ that have for centuries gave meaning to sovereignty become porous and bringing the world closer in time and space.

Countries that defy the tide of change have often been warned of being left behind by their more assertive neighbors. Fearing being left out, countries warn their citizens to rise to the occasion and adapt to the changes in order to reap the benefits of globalization and help their nations develop. Globalization is thus seen as an opportunity to modernize and democratize in line with global values and choices. This means the opening up of a closed or regulated market to foreign capital, loosening up of borders to labor migration and importing of new technologies and creative ideas, among others.

While many realize the need to globalize, approaches have been varied from those taking a cautious approach to those fully embracing it. For the cautious ones, they are skeptical of the true benefits that globalization brings to a country and its people citing incompatibility with traditional cultural values, religion, political structure and practices and the belief that globalization equates westernization as reasons.

Globalization is a generic term and it would be a fallacy to equate it with westernization. However, the advancement of science and technology in the West has allowed the Western world to ‘export’ their influence and interests ahead of others to other regions of the world. The same could be said of Japan exporting its popular culture such as manga, anime, cuisines and music to Asia and the West.

Due to the differences in the configuration of each country and its set of people, the impact of globalization would logically be uneven and disparate. Not only does it causes disparities between economies, it affects the social stratification within state societies as well.

Take Singapore as an example. With a population of about 4 million people, it has often been lauded as a successful city-state which has embraced globalization to its best advantage. A tiny island lacking in natural resources and agricultural sector, it depends heavily on trade and finance with the outside world. Singapore is one of the first countries in the East Asian region to sign bilateral free trade deals with other countries and its global focus exemplifies its interest to reap the benefits of a global economy on offer.

With smart policies in place, Singapore has been able to grow at an average of 7.6%, in what Newsweek (Jan. 29, 2007) considers as “a staggering pace for an industrialized state”. While its macroeconomics are impressive and may be the envy of others, its microeconomics are less so. The magazine reported that 30% of Singapore’s poorest (approx. 1.2 million) are in fact worse off compared to 5 years ago. The wealthiest 10% have increased their income by 2.3% while the poorest 10% saw a drop by 4.3% annually over a 5 year period. This in effect expands the gap of inequality and could eventually lead to social instability. Writes the magazine, “what’s surprising is that even a country famous for its smart and transparent leadership has been unable to prevent the gains of globalization from flowing mostly to rich individuals and multinational corporations”.

Realizing the problem of disparity, the Singapore government has been taking steps to reduce the gap through various programs. Singapore’s case indicates that:

  1. riding the wave of globalization allow countries to prosper but causes side-effects such as unequal wealth distribution that could strain delicate social safety nets unless corrected by innovative policies.
  2. Such side-effects may have wider and deeper implications for countries with higher population and/or lower social cohesion.

The same can be said of Japan.  Ever since the country went into economic recession and stagnation, successive leaders have been focusing on ways to reform and bring the country closer inline with global trends by opening up its market to foreign competition and labor. The forceful reforms, according to some, are affecting the balance of wealth that, if left unchecked, leads to an expanding gap between the haves and have-nots.

The fear is real since Japan has long been able to pride itself on its ability to maintain equal wealth distribution and stable middle class population. This has given rise to debates on how to avoid, if not overcome, the problem of winners (勝ち組) and losers (負け組み). Japan’s social problems today ranges from the ending of life-time employment and declining birthrates to the increasing of job-hopping part-timers (freeters) and aging population. Corporate restructurings are contributing to unemployment while the younger generation are snubbing the path that their parents took opting for more freedom through temporary jobs. Long established social norms and barriers are preventing the ones cast-aside from rebounding.  

Realizing that Japan does have an adequate safety net in place to help those that get left behind by globalization, PM Abe is working on what he calls “challenge-again assistance measures” in his Sept. 2006 speech as below:

The kind of society that Japan should aim at is a society in which the efforts of people are rewarded, a society in which there is no stratification into winners and losers, and a society in which ways of working, learning, and living are diverse and multi-tracked- in other words, a society of opportunity where everyone has a chance to challenge again. If there are people who sense they are facing inequality, it is the role of politics to shed light on them. I will promote comprehensive “Challenge Again Assistance Measures” as an important task of my Cabinet.

 The “challenge again” (再チャレンジ) concept is meant to provide opportunities and pave the way for those that have fallen to rise again to the challenge and not to choose the convenient way of committing suicide in times of hardship. As a central policy, PM Abe is commited and has gone as far as creating the post of Minister of State for Challenge Again to oversee its implementations.

The concept covers 3 central pillars – shaking off employment difficulties and economic hardship brought by deflation, equal opportunities, and achieving a multi-track society (Japan +, Feb. 2007). The first pillar is to assist freeters to find stable employment through training. The second pillar is to enable the weak (primarily women and the elderly) and the disabled to support themselves such as reemployment of women after child raising. The third pillar is to change the structure of society in ways that would make it easy for people to achieve the lifestyle of their choice even at different stages of life such as helping those who would like to move from the cities to the countrysides  and engage in agriculture or forestry.

Globalization knows no borders and morals. A double-edged sword, it could benefit mankind but also help to spread vice. Its impact on societies is anything but homogenous. Therefore, countries would have to come up with their own unique measures and efforts to cope with external influence and internal changes. 

Nuclear doomsday – 5 mins to midnight! January 23, 2007

Posted by genchan in General, Globalization, Nuclear, Security, World.
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clock5.gif

Though my focus is on events in the East Asian region, I found this extremely interesting and decided to blog about it since it has ramification for both the region of my interest and the world at large.

To begin, how much of us are even aware of such a thing called a doomsday clock (pic above)? I for one was unaware of it until I read about it recently. Just a few days ago, Japanese TV made a documentary in line with this clock timeline to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons and how close we have come to a nuclear doomsday.

Certainly, Japan would know best as it is the only victim of nuclear weapons in the world. Every year, Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds us of the destruction caused to mankind that has continued to reverberate decades later.

The doomsday clock is an indicator of how close our world is to a nuclear catastrophe. Created and ‘maintained’ by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(BAS), it “evoked both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero)”. BAS was founded by University of Chicago scientists who were directly involved in the Manhattan Project (that gave birth to the world’s first atomic weapon) and therefore realized the consequences associated with nuclear force. Because of the organization’s reputation and the fact that its board of sponsors include 18 Nobel laureates, the clock plays an important role in ‘assessing’ the vulnerability of our world to nuclear threats, health epidemic and global warming.

Since the US rained two bombs on Japan, the former Soviet Union have tested theirs and until late 1980s, the world were divided into two blocs – the West vs the East, with each trying to outperform the other under what we have come to accept as the Cold War period. The end of the Cold War marked a new beginning as it effectively stopped the nuclear arms race between the two poles. If the minute hand was at 6 mins to midnight in 1988, it was at 17 mins (11:43) in 1991 (the furthest ever).

The future was supposed to be bright as the US and SU agreed to dismantle their large stockpile of nuclear warheads and as the world move from bipolarity to multipolarity and militarization to economic development.

Yet today, we are nearer to doomsday than ever before. The world did change after the collapse of the Berlin Wall but it did not change for the better. BAS justify their decision to shift the minute hand this year as below:

The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.

Currently, both the US and Russia still hold large quantities of nuclear arsenals. Russia has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the US still has about 10,000, with each side having more than 1000 on high alert that can be deployed in minutes. “Both countries would need to dismantle one weapon a day for the next 25 years to even approach the stockpile size of any of the other nuclear weapon states” (BAS website).

Countries possessing nuclear weapons have also grown in number. At present, there are nine countries possessing nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Libya would have been the tenth if not for their decision to abort and dismantle their’s. If Iran succeeds and joins in, it would not only increase the number but contribute to more complication especially when the US considers Iran as a rogue state and part of the axis of evil. Terrorism is another fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands. This is not to mention the possibility of accidents coming from a misfiring due to miscommunication, malfunction or system deterioration.

If nuclear proliferation starts spliting up the world again, dismantling of nuclear stockpiles (one of the recommendations of BAS) would be the least thinkable. Already, various moves have been taken in furthering ballistic missile defense system that could lead to an unending cycle of arms race.

This is the ugly side of the rise of globalization and the use of high-tech such as nano-technology. Information is shared easily and weapons are shrunk down but yet packed with more force. As our world become ever more connected in time and space, we become even more vulnerable to desolation.  

We might need to ponder what will happen when the hand strikes twelve. It would certainly be worse than the Cinderella story of the chariot turning into a pumpkin. While Cinderella does not have the power to turn back the clock, we do. The doomsday clock has been adjusted 18 times since 1947 and its time for us to adjust it as far back as we can for the 19th time or else….