Saturday, February 28, 2015

China is responsible for as much as 28 percent of plastic waste in ocean waters— making it the largest contributor to the problem worldwide


 


China's Next Challenge: The Depletion of Global Natural Resources


China is cleaning up its act at home, but will leaders be willing to tackle illegal environmental depredations abroad?

The recent University of Georgia study reporting that China is responsible for as much as 28 percent of plastic waste in ocean waters— making it the largest contributor to the problem worldwide — underscores the broader challenge of the country’s global environmental footprint. Some problems, such as the plastic waste or air pollution from China that travels across the Pacific, directly reflect China’s own environmental problems; as China addresses these problems on the home front, other affected countries will also benefit.

Yet there is another set of global environmental challenges related to the depletion of the world’s natural resources. Tackling these issues will require China’s leaders to adopt policies that won’t necessarily bring an immediate environmental or economic benefit to the country. Instead, they will have to take as their priority the preservation of the global commons and protection of the developing world’s natural resources. While China may pay a financial cost for adopting such a priority, it will put the country on a path toward becoming the responsible global power it aspires to be.

China is a significant contributor to the depletion of a number of the world’s most precious natural resources. It is, for example, an important — indeed perhaps the largest — source of overfishing and illegal fishing globally. Scientists at the University of British Columbia estimate that of the 4.1 million of tonnes of fish that China catches off the coasts of other countries, only 9 percent is officially reported. Whether the fishing is legal or illegal (and some of it most certainly is illegal), the failure of Chinese fishermen to report their catch deprives countries of the ability to develop the proper conservation policies. Violence can also accompany this illegal fishing activity. In late 2014, for example, Chinese fishermen threatened members of the Korean Coast Guard with knives and beer bottles and even attempted to choke one of them. The situation took a turn for the worst when one of the fishermen was shot and killed.

China’s role in illegal logging is also a long-standing concern. Over the past decade and a half, as China has sought to protect its own forests, it has become both the largest importer of timber and the largest importer of stolen wood. According to one estimate, as much as 20 percent of Chinese imported wood is illegally sourced. In Myanmar, where Chinese logging enterprises are very active, forest coverage has dropped from 60 percent in the 1970s to as little as 20 percent in 2013; the Myanmar government recently arrested more than 100 Chinese loggers who were suspected of illegally entering the country. Although attention to this issue within China has risen significantly over the past few years, Beijing has yet to put in place any significant domestic legislation or signed any agreements to curtail the flow of illegal wood products into the country.

In addition, the illegal trade in endangered species and products is driven in large part by Chinese demand. Demand for ivory from China, for example, is a major contributor to the devastating poaching of elephants in Africa. Chinese traffickers acknowledge that 90 percent of the Chinese ivory market is illegally imported. Despite increased arrests and awareness campaigns by Beijing, the problem persists: in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, at least 78 and 89 percent of outlets selling ivory are illegal. The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency even accused an official Chinese delegation of transferring large amounts of illegal ivory from Tanzania back to Beijing on President Xi Jinping’s plane in 2013. Although China’s state Forestry Administration announced a one year moratorium on the import of ivory carvings in late February 2015, wildlife experts argue that it falls far short of the total ban on domestic trade in ivory that is needed to make a real difference.

At the heart of this illegal depletion of the world’s resources is a combination of greed, official complicity, and weak governance, both in the resource-rich countries and in China as well. Chinese officials often claim as their first line of defense that they are not responsible for these environmental problems — it is the responsibility of the host governments to protect their own environments. Some countries indeed have tried to take matters into their own hands. Indonesia, for example, confiscated dozens of Chinese-linked fishing vessels in 2014. It also revoked a deal that it had signed with Beijing in 2013 that gave Chinese fishermen an advantage over other foreign fishing interests. And Ghana deported thousands of Chinese gold miners whose mining practices were devastating the environment. Yet in many cases, governance in the resource-rich country is weak and often corrupt, helping the illegal trade in resources to flourish.

So what could or should Beijing do? Even without acknowledging culpability, Beijing could do much to ensure that its businesses, whether private or state-owned, become responsible global actors. For example, Beijing could follow the lead of the European Union, Australia, and the United States to pass legislation that bans the import and trade of illegally sourced timber; it could ensure that Chinese fishermen report their catch accurately; and it could ratchet up the strength of its customs inspections at ports and other well known border transport points for endangered species and illegally-logged timber. Such actions, in fact, should be a natural extension of China’s own domestic efforts to enhance transparency and the rule of law.

Chinese President Xi Jinping took an important step forward at the November APEC summit to support the protection of the global environment by pledging that China’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak around 2030. He was uniquely positioned — along with President Obama — to make a real difference in the world’s environmental future. He should not stop now, but should position himself as a leading force for global environmental protection. Indeed, the fate of the world’s natural resources depends on it. The Diplomat





 

Negotiating Singapore’s meritocracy



Recent debates on meritocracy raise questions as to what Singapore regards as merit. Several concepts have emerged reflecting how meritocracy is evolving in the Singaporean context, such as ‘compassionate meritocracy’, ‘trickle up meritocracy’ and ‘meritocracy through life’.

The 50th anniversary of independence is an opportune time for Singaporeans to deliberate how they understand the country today and its driving forces, including the idea of meritocracy. Described as a national core value, meritocracy has been justified as a practice that rewards the hardworking and deserving with economic success and social mobility. Meritocracy is said to have provided equal opportunities to all in Singapore’s multicultural society.

But recent debates highlight the negative side-effects of meritocracy in Singapore, which include a widening income gap and growing elitism. These issues largely revolve around how the term merit should be understood and whether the effects of meritocracy are congruent with Singapore’s desire to be an inclusive society.

In Singapore, meritocracy largely rewards academically-inclined individuals. These individuals are rewarded economically in the workforce and socially in terms of status, as academic excellence plays a large role in determining career trajectories.

But the practice of meritocracy has come under fire. Excessive emphasis on academic achievements may stigmatise the less academically-inclined. And the income gap widens when rewards favour the academically strong over the rest. Elitism among those who have succeeded in the system is also probable and is likely to be accompanied by stratification according to educational achievement and class.

The effects of ‘non-merit factors’ may also be disregarded due to the emphasis on meritocracy. Professors Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr of the University of North Carolina define ‘non-merit factors’ as circumstances that ‘suppress, neutralise, or negate the effects of merit’. This can intensify inequalities within society. For example, having limited access to social capital and resources undermines merit-based mobility.

It would be simplistic to assume Singaporeans disagree with the emphasis on meritocracy. Meritocracy is a cornerstone of Singapore’s success. But the negative effects of meritocracy have become more apparent as new challenges develop within society. The principle of non-discrimination should also acknowledge that the less fortunate, able or academically-inclined may not benefit as much under a the dominant idea of meritocracy.

The recent emphasis on improving schools, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education are examples on how to pave the way towards expanding our understanding of merit. Merit is a principle that can be altered according to the changing needs of society.

So, what now?

Government leaders and academics have suggested several new concepts that exemplify a renewed effort to contain and soften the negative effects of unchecked meritocracy.

The government supported notion of ‘compassionate meritocracy’ pushes for Singaporeans who have benefited from the system to contribute back to society and assist the less able and less fortunate. This can be regularly carried out through donations, skills-sharing or encouraging those in need.

‘Trickle-up meritocracy’ understands that government redistribution can complement current practices of meritocracy. This can equalise the effects of non-merit factors by providing resources for less privileged Singaporeans. For example, scholarships for higher education can be offered to promising students from less affluent backgrounds.

In 2014 Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam proposed ‘meritocracy through life’, for individuals to be evaluated throughout the different phases of their lives in their fields of endeavour. Most recently, this notion was enhanced in the 2015 Singapore Budget, where Shanmugaratnam reiterated that Singapore needed to be a ‘meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades’. This allows more recognition for different niches and would ensure that talents are measured appropriately.

The establishment of the Skills Future Council is telling of this commitment. It encourages constant learning by integrating education, training and industry support for career advancement. These initiatives encourage a more holistic understanding of merit — one which goes beyond academic qualifications and emphasises hard work and competition.

These concepts are all steps in the right direction. They acknowledge the inequalities that may hinder some from thriving in an academically-driven meritocracy, and recognise that other niches should be developed to provide more opportunities for Singaporeans to compete.

Singapore’s understanding of merit should be enhanced. ‘Compassionate meritocracy’, ‘trickle up meritocracy’ and ‘meritocracy through life’ illustrate how meritocracy is evolving to suit a changing Singaporean context.

Nur Diyanah Binte Anwar is a Research Analyst with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

 

Building a railway is far more meaningful than fighting wars



Wang Mengshu, while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, said the above words by telephone from Beijing. Professor Mengshu, age 78, graduated from Tangshan Railway Institute, specializing in tunnel and space engineering. He developed and applied composite structures for lining tunnels.

During the 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) Dayaoshan Tunnel Project he advanced the technologies of smooth blasting, deep boring, anchor-bolt shotcrete, drilling pre-grouting, information-based two-way construction and pre-reinforced supporting systems for unstable ground. Dayaoshan Tunnel, longest of 263 on the 1,428-mile (2,3000-kilometer) Beijing-Guanzhou high-speed rail line, is a single-tube with a cross-section of 1,076 square feet of material excavated from above the rails, enough for double-trains, maintaining level and straight alignment, also using bridges, across topography.

He helped investigate the 2011 high-speed rail crash that injured 190 passengers, and killed 40. He specializes in underwater tunnels and as deputy chief engineer of the China Railway Tunnel Group, he heads the experts designing an 80-mile tunnel beneath the Bohai Sea.

He is director of the Tunnel and Underground Engineering Experimental Research Center of Beijing Jiaotong University, and for 20 years has been an elected member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the highest academic title in engineering science and technology in China.

Several months ago Professor Mengshu told the Beijing Times about his idea for a "China-Russia-Alaska-Canada-US 220-miles per hour railroad train," which would cross the Bering Strait, from Russia to Alaska, using a 125-mile long tunnel to transport passengers and cargo between China and the US in less than two days.


In his December New York Times interview, he said such an initiative is "a wish and a dream of not only China’s railway experts, but also of railway engineers in Russia, Canada and the US, whom I have spoken to." He said, "… building tunnels is not about the length. It has more to do with how deep it is in the sea than length. But why not? We have the technology, and it is a good thing to do. It would benefit generations to come, and the environment. It would connect continents.

"It would be a grand structure of human engineering. It depends on whether governments of the four countries can work together, make this dream come true and leave this amazing legacy for our children."

He admits the Chinese central government is not seriously considering it. He said that the other three countries that need be involved "have not made any public comments".

Professor Mengshu says, "The project is still a concept, at a very premature stage." Though technically feasible, it "demands serious negotiation among the nations concerned, not to mention substantial financial support. It’s too early to talk about the exact route."

When China dismantled its Ministry of Railways, it said farewell to the planned economy and hopes to forever avoid the "great-leap-forward" development approach to railway construction, which resulted in over-investment, excessive construction and aggravated debt risk.

Now the Chinese, because they still have less than half the total railway mileage of that in the United States, are hoping to dramatically expand private rail investment. In 2013, as Professor Mengshu observed, "a shortage of funds is the most urgent problem facing the country’s railway construction."

China, in dissolving the Ministry of Railways, established the China Railway Corporation to take over all commercial functions. China Railway Corporation was capitalized with bonds at US$167.4 billion, after a wide disagreement about the value of existing rail assets. Last month, China Railway Corporation announced that in 2014 alone it invested $132 billion, completing more than 5,236 miles of new railway construction and exceeding all goals for the year.

Sheng Guangzu, general manager of China Railway Corporation, told his annual work meeting, "China has accelerated railway construction both in scale and intensity to fulfill its annual targets in 2014 and the construction drive will continue in 2015."

At the end of six years from the launch of the first high-speed railway passenger service, 9,942 miles of China’s 69,593 total railroad miles are comprised of high-speed rail. By the end of 2015, China’s high-speed rail will have been expanded by another 1,243 miles, which though at a lesser rate, will continue being further expanded through at least 2020. Discussions about improved designs aims at placing of major rail hubs in critical locations, conjoined with metro-transit systems and major airport facilities.

Meanwhile, a separate 1,087-mile coal rail project, the West Inner Mongolia-Central China Railway, which will be partially completed this year, has absorbed $27.12 billion in funding. Prior to being dismantled, the Chinese Ministry of Railroads contributed 20%, for the first time not holding a 50% controlling interest. The other 80% has come from local governments and other entities. Private capital from 11 energy and coal companies contributed 15.7%.

Back in 2012, Professor Mengshu observed, "It would take a long time, say 12 or 13 years, to recover the investment. Whether investors could profit depends on the operating efficiency of the project. Protecting the interest of private investors in state-dominated sectors is an issue that has yet to be solved."

American industrialists, like the key personalities involved with the Washington Corporations, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific and our Electric Utilities will undoubtedly be able to offer Professor Mengshu a set of recommendations for an effective system for accelerating the return of private capital.

Our universities will know what they best can contribute to improve construction and operating technologies, as well as identify and obviate environmental concerns associated with high-speed rail. The main needed ingredients seem to be civic and political leadership. Surely we have leaders of Panama Canal caliber at our state and national levels.

Professor Mengshu observes, "That depends on how the governments of the four countries prioritize," and "that depends entirely on politics".

Though the amounts of capital required to construct a connecting railway between China and Montana are staggering, they are insignificant compared to conservative estimates of $1 trillion expended for just the war in Iraq, which we were told "would pay for itself". We stumbled like led sleep-walkers into in Iraq. And to what end?

In the case of railways, the economic and cultural returns, not to mention the avoidance of just one little-bitty war, would be immense. More than the people of any nation, we in the US should profoundly agree that, "Building a railway is far more meaningful than fighting wars."

John B Driscoll, a retired US Army officer, is a former Montana State Legislator and Majority Leader & Speaker whose areas of expertise include electricity policy, terrorism counter action, and distributed learning and knowledge management.

Friday, February 27, 2015

US, Japan Cautiously Rebuild Ties With Thailand


 


Concerned at rising Chinese influence since last year’s coup, the two countries adopt a pragmatic approach.

The United States and Japan drew international attention this month, as both countries separately marked positive shifts in their relations with Thailand. While the United States kicked off the annual Cobra Gold military exercises – the largest joint military exercise in the Asia-Pacific – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, releasing a joint statement that called for broader bilateral economic ties.

Both actions attracted significant attention, in part because Thailand is currently ruled by a military junta, which came to power following a coup in May 2014. Thailand is governed by martial law and officials have stated that the restoration of democracy will not happen until early 2016.

This political situation notwithstanding, the United States and Japan affirmed their relationships with Thailand, both likely under with the intent of countering China’s growing influence in the region – the United States with security cooperation and Japan with economic aid. Thailand is a longstanding U.S. security ally in the Asia-Pacific, with the Cobra Gold exercises first held at a bilateral level beginning in 1982.

Last year’s coup prompted the United States to suspend security assistance and cancel exchange programs with Thailand, as the U.S. is legally prohibited from providing military assistance to any country whose elected leader is removed from power by a coup. Yet China’s increasing overtures towards Thailand in the months since, particularly towards strengthening security cooperation, have been a cause for concern in Washington. Chinese military officials met with their Thai counterparts on February 6, and China took part in Cobra Gold for the first time this year. In an effort to balance relations with Thailand while signaling its concerns for democratic restoration, the U.S. compromise was to continue Cobra Gold while scaling back the size and scope of activities. While the United States has acknowledged the difficulties of the U.S.-Thai relationship, its efforts represent a good step in trying to balance its democratic values with its strategic interests in the Southeast Asia region.

For Japan, Abe’s joint statement with Prayuth stressed the importance of quickly restoring democracy to Thailand, stating that “reform of the country towards a sustainable and inclusive democracy” is “crucial.” At the same time, the two leaders signed a memorandum of intent on cooperation, affirming Japan’s involvement in railway and other infrastructure development projects in Thailand. Like the United States, Japan’s relationship with Thailand was affected by the military coup, as Japan initially suspended high-level diplomatic exchanges with Thailand. Yet, as Japan’s direct investment in Thailand fell by 37 percent while China’s increased by 800 percent in 2014, Tokyo has sought to reestablish ties. With China seeking to strategically focus its aid on Southeast Asia through various economic initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, Japan is more aware of its need to maintain positive relations with Thailand.

According to the 2014 PEW Global Attitudes survey, China is well-regarded in Thailand, with 72 percent of the public generally perceiving the country favorably. The majority of Thais believe that China is the leading global economic power and 44 percent believe that China will or has already replaced the United States as the leading superpower (compared to 38 percent who believe otherwise). Yet in terms of Thailand’s greatest ally, the United States is still considered to be the primary partner, and Japan is even more favorably regarded than China, at 81 percent. A similar survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed high approval of Japan as a “reliable,” “friendly” and “trustworthy” partner for Thailand. Like much of Southeast Asia, Thailand relies on all three countries: China is Thailand’s top bilateral trading partner, Japan is its largest foreign direct investor, and until the 2014 coup, the United States had provided millions in military assistance each year to Thailand through Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training funds. The absence of the United States and Japan creates an easy opportunity for increased Chinese influence. With tensions and instability regarding territorial disputes and maritime law already prominent in the region, the United States and Japan need to be proactive in maintaining their positive images if they want to counter China’s influence in a meaningful and impactful way.

There is a regional power balance at play in Southeast Asia, with the United States, Japan and China all active participants. The United States and Japan do not want to antagonize China, but they also do not want China’s influence – in Thailand and the broader region – to continue expanding. In the case of Thailand, both the United States and Japan focused on separate, complementary aspects – the United States on security and Japan on economic cooperation. This kind of coordinated activity allows the two countries to minimize the domestic fallout from supporting a non-democratic regime, while maintaining a positive presence in the region. This is strategic pragmatism, reflecting the aligned nature of U.S. and Japanese interests in Southeast Asia, and representing the potential for increased U.S.-Japan coordination in encouraging peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Hana Rudolph is a Research Assistant with the East Asia Program at The Stimson Center, a global security think tank in Washington, D.C. 

 
On Friday paramilitary authorities in Bali carried out a frightening re-enactment of their highly militarised transfer, involving handcuffed prisoners and armoured tanks.

Indonesia: Sacred Virgins and the Death of a Secular Surabaya


 

Surabaya’s pious female mayor, appears never to have consulted Voltaire’s wisdom. Virginity, in Risma’s view — or more specifically, religious chastity — is so important that it must be imposed on individuals by the state.

 

Let’s talk about sex

Thanks to condoms, birth control pills and various oher contraceptives, sex can now be enjoyed freely and safely by all of humankind, regardless of marital status. Fact.

What is to be gained, then, from needlessly prolonging one’s virgin years, even as the body desires sexual fulfillment?

Why should unmarried couples be expected to waste years of their lives proactively avoiding sex, when we know that sex is essentially harmless — not to mention immensely pleasurable — if performed safely and with mutual consent?

As the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire once said: “To think of virginity as a virtue — and not a barrier that separates ignorance from knowledge — is an infantile superstition.”

Tri Rismaharini, Surabaya’s pious female mayor, appears never to have consulted Voltaire’s wisdom. Virginity, in Risma’s view — or more specifically, religious chastity — is so important that it must be imposed on individuals by the state.

As a secularist and a human rights defender, I find it difficult to conceive of anything more dystopian, anything more contrary to individual liberty, than Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day and her de facto criminalization of premarital sex.

For those who have forgotten, or are not yet familiar with Surabaya’s Valentine’s Day raids, allow me to explain how “Mother Risma” recently attempted to “save” her young constituents from the sin of premarital sex.

Raids and arrests

Beginning on Valentine’s Day morning, and ending on Feb. 15, Surabaya police blitzed through hotels and dormitories, arresting any couple suspected of having (or planning) premarital sex. That the couples had chosen to fornicate in private, with mutual consent, and mostly with the aid of contraception, was of no importance to Risma or the police. On Valentine’s Day, Risma declared, all premarital sex is equally abhorrent and deserving of arrest.

In addition to hotels and dormitories, police also raided Surabaya’s minimarts in search of unscrupulous vendors selling contraceptives to unmarried couples. Hundreds of condoms were thus confiscated by police, who feared that such items might enable unmarried couples to practice safe sex.

Police also seized several hundred kilograms of chocolate confections during the raids, ostensibly for being sold in combination with condoms. Susanto, a spokesman at the Indonesian Commission for Child Protection (KPAI), even claimed that some stores had given free condoms to young customers who purchased Valentine’s Day chocolates. Minimarts denied these allegations, however, claiming that images of so-called chocolate-condom “packages,” which appeared on social media, had been photoshopped by anti-Valentine’s activists.

By the end of the operation, 223 couples had been arrested by the police, according to Merdeka.com. The detainees were then held at a nearby “social center” following their arrest, where they were separated from one another until a parent or relative came to “pick them up.”

Their only crime? Attempting to have consensual sex behind closed doors, most probably with the aid of a condom.

Risma’s motives

Before we consider the morality of Risma’s Valentine’s Day purge, it is important to first understand why Risma feels justified in her use of state power to repress premarital sex.

In the year 2015, given how much we now know about safe sex, there is really only one type of person who has the audacity to campaign against sexual freedom for consenting individuals, and against the use of contraception among unmarried couples.

That person is, of course, a religious person.

“It is no accident that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedom of others,” the philosopher Sam Harris said in his 2006 book “The End of Faith.” “This impulse has less to do with the history of religion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incompatible with the existence of God.”

As a devout Muslim, Risma firmly believes that sex before marriage is a mortal sin — a crime against God. After all, if God were not the victim of this so-called crime, then who else could it be? Who else could bear witness to an offense that takes place behind closed doors, and who else could press charges in lieu of any human plaintiff? Needless to say, only an all-knowing and all-seeing entity could detect such a clandestine and victimless crime.

Preventing premarital sex out of fear that it would offend the almighty is clearly the motive for Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day, and also explains her hostility to contraception. Strangely, however, when the dreaded Feb. 14 came along, Risma seemed hesitant to admit that her religious convictions were the true source of her concerns.

If Risma was honest about her motives, she would have openly declared that her belief in zina — the Islamic sin of fornication — compelled her to meddle in the sex lives of her constituents.

But instead of admitting this simple fact, Risma threw up a few classic red herrings, arguing that her proscription of Valentine’s Day is a defense against “Western culture” rather than an attempt to please God: “We hope that the ban [on Valentine's Day] will support our efforts to save Surabaya’s children from ‘new colonialism,’ ” Risma said on Feb. 14, “which takes the form of illegal drugs, alcohol and other negative Western cultural influences.”

This is a convenient way of shifting the blame for all the perceived vices of Risma’s own constituents — drug use, free sex etc. — onto an external factor beyond her control; in this case, of course, the evil West.

But why is that Western culture, as Risma’s conceives it, appears to be replete with “negative” influences? What is it about Western values that warrants such grotesque repression as Risma’s Valentine’s Day raids, and her cruel denial of contraceptives to young couples? What exactly is she afraid of?

First of all, I will grant Risma one point: Perhaps it is true that Western ideas about individual liberty and free sex have led to greater promiscuity in Surabaya. In fact, this is probably true of all urban areas throughout the developing world. This admission does not mean, however, that individual liberty and free sex are intrinsically immoral, simply because such ideas tend to encourage higher rates of fornication. Rather, for premarital sex to be immoral, it would have to result in some kind of harm to either of its participants. Sadly for Risma, however, we know all too well that premarital sex can be safely enjoyed with the aid of contraception.

So what’s the problem?

It seems obvious to me that Risma’s ban on Valentine’s Day has absolutely nothing to do with keeping her constituents safe from physical or psychological harm, and everything to do with not angering her God. And if this is not clear enough already, then I invite you to play a thought experiment.

A thought experiment

Suppose that some product of “Western culture” inspired two unmarried Surabayans to purchase a condom and have consensual sex. The couple go off and have an enjoyable tryst, nobody gets harmed, and nobody else is even aware that an act of fornication has taken place. For Risma to claim that such sex is an immoral manifestation of “new colonialism,” or that it reflects a “negative … cultural influence,” would be incredibly odd, given that the outcomes of the event were entirely positive.

Western culture should not be considered immoral simply because it encourages premarital sex. If anything, Western-style sexual freedom appears to be a superbly ethical idea, since it encourages only safe sex among consensual partners, and considers the use of contraception to be a necessary precondition.

This rather straightforward moral calculus changes entirely, however, with the introduction of an omniscient God figure who has placed a jealous ban on premarital sex. In this context — which Risma considers to be our contemporary reality — fornication is considered immoral not for its real-world consequences, but for the apparent displeasure it causes to God.

Using this rationale, then, if God really is all-knowing and all-seeing, then he is presumably watching in tortuous agony each time an unmarried Surabayan sets off to the 7-Eleven to buy a condom. Astonishingly, however, time after time, God fails to defend his young virgins from the evil lure of contraception and fornication. This inertia, of course, begs a few questions.

“Why doesn’t he intervene?” one of Risma’s chaste supporters might ask. “Why doesn’t he, with all his incredible powers, simply remove the condoms from the shelf and save the young virgin from sin?”

These are very reasonable and pertinent questions, to which those who believe in God must provide answers, particularly those, like Risma, who are so convinced of God’s existence that they believe his will should be imposed on everyone else by force. In order of logical probability, then, consider the following options:

1) God is secretly a closet public health nerd, and he knows that contraception is one of the greatest inventions in human history — or, perhaps, he invented it himself! — and thus resolves to let the young virgin do the sensible thing and purchase a condom at the 7-Eleven.

2) God really can see all of the world’s unmarried couples during the act of fornication, but is unable to intervene because he is either too tired, too busy, concentrating on something more important, or not truly omnipotent.

3) God really can see all of the world’s fornicators, doing their thing, but does not intervene because he feels that sexual morality is a private matter.

4) God does not exist, has never existed, and therefore does not have an opinion on sexual morality, let alone the capacity to police it.

The fact that God never intervenes to prevent his young virgins from fornicating — even on the dreaded Valentine’s Day! — ought to suggest to Risma that God really doesn’t so much care about how, why, where, when or with whom his subjects choose to have sex, or whether or not they use protection. (If he exists at all, that is.)

Risma, commanded by God?

This leads me on to another doctrinal conundrum that Risma routinely fails to address: If ultimately God judges his adherents at the gates of heaven, rather than here on Earth, then why is it Risma’s duty, as the publicly elected mayor of Surabaya, to punish those who privately disobey his commands?

This, I believe, really gets to the core of Risma’s bigoted view of premarital sex, and the danger of her religious beliefs in general. To put it briefly, Risma is convinced that she has been elected to serve God, first and foremost, as well as the people of Surabaya. In fact, in June 2014, Risma said exactly that: “Morally, I am accountable to God and the people of Surabaya [emphasis added].”

This conflict between Risma’s two perceived benefactors — one real and one imagined — is causing her to make totally irrational policy decisions based on religious dogma and fear of God, rather than pursuing what is best for her constituents. Clearly, God and the people of Surabaya have very different interests, particularly when it comes to sexual fulfillment.

After the disastrous shutdown of Surabaya’s Dolly red-light district in June last year, Risma’s Valentine’s Day raids are really just the latest tragic installment in a long line of God-fearing policy blunders, driven by her religious faith.

Make no mistake, Risma believes that her power as an elected politician can and should be used to impose her personal religious prejudice on private individuals, insofar as it pleases God’s prudish will.

This sort of authoritarianism should be of tremendous concern to anyone who believes that Indonesia is better off as a secular democracy, in which religious adherence is a private matter for each individual, and not to be enforced by the state. (I note that Indonesia’s Constitution mandates a compulsory belief in God — this, too, is problematic, and shall be considered in Part 2.)

For some strange reason, though, few commentators have been brave enough to speak out against Risma’s lurch toward theocracy, even as she hacks away at Indonesia’s secular Constitution.

Among unelected religious officials, the urge to police the sex lives of private individuals is, of course, pathologically common. But Risma’s insistence on using secular, state institutions — such as the police and local government — to enforce religious observance is something entirely different, and vastly more dangerous.

I am going to pay Risma the compliment of assuming that she does not want Surabaya to become another Aceh, Tehran or Riyadh. However, given her recent attempts to micro-manage the sex lives of her constituents, it does seem that Risma is somewhat tantalized by the idea of using state power to enforce her own petty religious prejudice on everyone else, whether they like it or not.

This creeping theocracy has to stop.

Patrick Tibke is a Jakarta-based writer and a recent graduate of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SOAS, University of London.

 

Indonesia’s ‘Alcatraz’ Island a breeding ground for hard-liners


With national and international attention fixed upon the notorious Nusakambangan prison island following last month’s controversial execution of five foreigners convicted of drug trafficking, local Muslim leaders in Cilacap regency, Central Java, are using the spotlight to call attention to another issue: the radicalization of inmates
and residents in the surrounding area.

They have warned the government that the island and its surrounding areas, dubbed “Indonesia’s Alcatraz”, have long been used as a recruiting ground for hard-line Muslim groups whose activities often go unnoticed by security agencies due to the area’s remoteness.


These groups, they said, were affiliated with the infamous Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who is currently serving a prison sentence on the island for terror-related crimes.


“The hard-liners grow well in Nusakambangan and the surroundings. Cadres are trained and indoctrinated at a number of sites there,” Nahdlatul Ulama Cilacap branch secretary Hazam Bisri told The Jakarta Post, on Tuesday. The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is the nation’s largest Muslim organization.

Hazam said there were at least three locations where hard-line Muslim groups attempted to recruit new followers: in Selok Jero, Kampung Laut and the prison itself.

Radicalization activities inside the prison, according to Hazam, were conducted by Ba’asyir and other convicted terrorists with visitors to the complex.

Quoting local NU data, Hazam said there were at least 70 convicted terrorists serving prison terms on the island.

“Each of the inmates will teach and indoctrinate an average of five people on each visit ,” Hazam said.

Selok Jero is a bit far from the prison compound, but it is where newly recruited members take their oaths. A mosque reportedly has also been built there, without the consent of the authorities.

“It has the same access as Kampung Laut. But to get there one must pass through a narrow route on a small boat,” Hazam said.

 Meanwhile, in Kampung Laut, about 100 Ba’asyir cadres are actively recruiting new cadres among the local inhabitants. Forty have taken up residence in the area.

Chairman of the Cilacap Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB), Taufik Hidayatulloh, expressed similar concerns over the radicalization efforts.“They spread propaganda to locals to reject the presence of churches and even to flatten worship venues,” Taufik said.

Taufik said the government should boost the presence of the Indonesian Military and the National Police on the island.

“There is no police precinct or military subdistrict command [Koramil] in Kampung Laut. You could say it’s a safe haven for jihadists,” Taufik said.

Thejakartapost.