Friday, 28 September 2018

Democracy in Time of Economic Inequality

Last weekend, we met a man from Cuba.

We were invited to a weekly gathering of children with Spanish heritage for which Isaac was lucky enough to be allowed in due to his status of having experienced the Spanish educational system when he was three. But while John can hold his own when forced to communicate in Spanish, I definitely felt like an uninvited guest about to be kicked out of the party so when another parent came over, we were grateful that he was happy to speak in English.

I told him that we have watched a documentary on Cuba, featured by my favourite adventurer Simon Reeve who reported on the communist country's transition to capitalism in 2012. Like any citizen of countries featured in Western documentaries, he admitted that he is often wary of how his Motherland is portrayed. As an academic, he was paid $25/month but his wages allowed him to live a comfortable life, in a country where public services are free and accessible and where poverty is not a concept most people know of. But when he lived in Mexico he discovered what his countrymen has lacked, dreams and aspirations, but it came with a cost - economic inequality. Which world is better, he doesn’t have an answer but he has in fact chosen to bring up his children in a country with decent social benefits despite its widening gap in wealth distribution.

It made me think of another documentary we watched recently on former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Belarus, countries that claim to be democratic but has been ruled for decades by authoritarians who have suppressed political freedoms of its staunch critics.

Kazakhstan is the largest and strongest performing economy in Central Asia due to its rich oil reserves whilst Belarus claims to have 1% reported unemployment rate and a recent Forbes article is greatly optimistic of its thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. In the program, the journalist was able to talk to groups of people who are highly supportive of their chosen leaders, pointing out the economic benefits they enjoy and carefully skirting over the issues of human rights violations that don’t get reported on the state-run media outlets. But there are dissidents too which he was also able to interview, voices that their governments continuously try to stifle by life threats and stints in and out of jail.

In those countries where life is easier when you turn a blind eye, choosing the road less taken wouldn't have been easy. On that crossroad, I would have been tempted to go with the crowd or just abandon the walk. That was what I did.

I was among the few lucky Filipinos whose move abroad was not precipitated by economic needs nor desire to bring white-collar job representation to my country whose biggest export is its people. Rather it was by my quest to pursue personal happiness.

It has been over a decade since I have left my homeland, an island nation in the Pacific which was once ruled by a dictator who looted the country of its wealth and sunk it deep into debt. Marcos supporters would point out that in those days impressive buildings were built, arts and culture thrived and the economy was booming in its early days but it was all at the cost of human rights atrocities that eventually the people took to the streets. It was a surprise to me then, that 30 years after toppling dictatorship, the very people who have ousted the previous one has put another in his place.

I have been repeatedly told, by family and friends, that as an outsider, I do not have the right to criticise the country that I have abandoned. For how can I, with a Facebook page that unashamedly boasts of a sheltered and comfortable life in middle class Britain, possibly know of the plight of the millions of ordinary Filipinos who have been burned by the failed promises of the post-Marcos liberal elites and who saw in Duterte, the man whom they defend with ferocity and passion, the realisation of those promises.

During my recent visit, I have noticed the strong military presence in my hometown in Mindanao. I was told that the Martial Law declared in Marawi and the crackdown in drugs have made many people feel safer but the dehumanisation of drug users have made them forget that the victims of Duterte's war on drugs are somebody else's child or loved one. They claimed that the thousands of farmers who protested for government aid during an El Nino drought in 2016 were puppets of militant organisations wanting to attract media coverage, not hungry peasants demanding for their rights. They pointed out that the staunch opponents of the incumbent president deserve to lose their government positions or be sent to jail for daring to speak out, forgetting that the job of the opposition is to make sure that the government is held accountable.

Perhaps because I am an outsider who doesn’t have to worry about the country's rising inflation, job prospects and economic inequalities, I am able to look at these issues that ordinary citizens can overlook and see them for what they are, blatant disregard for the basic human rights that a democratic country must and should uphold.

I understand the reason behind the nation's popular choice of an authoritarian leader, just like how I can comprehend the lack of major upheavals in countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus, or how our Cuban acquaintance is loath to criticise his country's communist regime. But I worry about what it means for the next generations of my family that is left behind should democracy become a thing of the past.

Tomorrow the BBC is airing a documentary about the state of Philippine democracy under Duterte's reign, who despite recently suffering the biggest dip to his approval rating, at 79%, is still favoured by the majority. On Monday at the kitchen in my multicultural workplace, my colleagues who are research scientists from countries like Iran, India and Poland will probably discuss it with me and together we will lament on the states of our homelands and its leaders. And we should be allowed to, because even though we have left our countries to chase after better lives, it doesn't mean that we no longer care.

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