I am absolutely in love with Thailand, a feeling that has only been heightened by the hospitality and warmth shown to me by my Thai host family in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand! My connection to them is far removed. As I mentioned before, I am pretty much a networking pro now, and I was fortunate to be put in touch with Mew and her family through a networking chain of 3 people, none of whom I’ve ever met! Despite this, they have shown me nothing but love and immediately took me in as one of the family! I am so lucky! My host family consists of Mew, who is the mother and manager of a bank, Khun Yai, who is Mew’s mother, and Tew, Mew’s 16-year-old son. Her husband works in Bangkok, so I haven’t had the opportunity to meet him yet. Despite a language barrier, we all get along really well and the experience has been great! I spend most of my time with Khun Yi because Mew has work and Tew has school, and while Khun Yai doesn’t speak much English, and my Thai is limited to saying things like “delicious,” “a little bit,” and “I’m full” (can you tell that Thai people like to feed me food!), we have become instant pals (and have a tendency to break into laughing fits together). Mew has a friend from college who has a daughter my age, so Fern comes over quite a bit to hang out with me as well. They’ve taken me to do so many fun things, from a batik painting class to numerous handicraft centers where I’ve seen the production of umbrellas, silk, and lacquer wear to an elephant camp! Chiang Mai is a little slice of heaven, and I can certainly see why so many people flock here and why so many ex-pats move here! It’s fabulous!
While in Bangkok, I was put in touch with an organization called Focus on the Global South (www.focusweb.org) that is based out of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. I found this organization to be highly interesting as they are very anti-globalization and anti-free trade. Their views on economic policies are completely opposite of those from the conference I attended in Boston put on by the Institute for Humane Studies (a very libertarian organization), so I was really interested to know about their views on freedom, especially in terms of economics. Focus works in Thailand, the Philippines, and India, and combines policy research, advocacy, activism, and grassroots capacity building to generate critical analysis and debate on national and international policies related to corporate-led globalization, neoliberalism, and militarization. The three main goals of this organization are to “dismantle oppressive economic and political structures and institutions; to create liberating structures and institutions; to promote demilitarization and peacebuilding, instead of conflict.” These three goals are brought together under the paradigm of deglobalization. Their definition of globalization is important as it is described as “the transformation of the global economy from one centered around the needs of transnational corporations to one that focuses on the needs of people, communities, and nations and in which the capacities of local and national economies are strengthened.” (I do have to admit that I was doing my research about Focus at Starbucks, the irony of which was not lost upon me. )
From Focus’ standpoint, the perception of the free trade system is skewed. For example, in agriculture, farmers can’t choose what they want to grow because of cheap US subsidies that get dumped into their countries, lowering the price of products so they can no longer compete and sell their goods. They also believe that consumers lose their freedom under this scheme because they can’t buy locally or track the supply chain of the products they are buying (take the current milk situation in China that has affected the whole world). Focus advocates a local approach to politics as well, believing in direct democracy where people need to be active in policy making and keeping the government accountable. In the free market system, the poor cannot see this as freedom because they are losing the control over their own livelihoods because of market demands instead of individual decisions. In a local approach, as opposed to a globalized system, people have a direct say in issues that affect them, giving them greater freedom and control over their lives. Focus also works on defending and reclaiming the commons, fighting against the privatization of water, electricity, and health care, things that it sees as belonging inherently to everyone instead of being able to be controlled by a few for profit. Additionally, Focus also works for climate justice, believing that the world is not following a sustainable pattern, and the excess of a small percentage of the world is creating irreparable damage for the entire world. In the area of the climate, I see this as directly related to the Harm Principle put forth by John Stuart Mill (one of my all time favorite great thinkers). Basically, the harm principle states that you are free to do whatever you want as long as it does not cause harm to another person (of course the big question with this principle is what exactly the definition of harm is….). In the area of the environment, I think that this principle has great applicability. While many people think that they have somehow earned the right to pollute and waste more than others, such actions create harm for everyone else by causing harm to the environment, something that everyone has to share. Way back in August, I had a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane about India, and he brought up the point that if people in India and China lived the way Americans did, our resources would be depleted almost immediately. The people at Focus gave me a DVD called “The Story of Stuff” to watch, which quantified this idea by saying that if everyone in the world lived such a life of waste as in America, we would need 3 planets to provide all the resources necessary to sustain life. In terms of freedom, I think this raises an important aspect of freedom that includes responsibility. I don’t think that having freedom is an easy thing. Making choices and dealing with the consequences can be difficult, especially when you take into consideration long-term effects. And while as humans we will make the wrong choices a lot in our lives, in most cases we can “live and learn” from those choices (I have done A LOT of living and learning the past 3 months). In the case of the environment, though, I think that too many of us are turning a blind eye to what is happening and not seeing how our actions are affecting the situation and choosing not to learn and instead to keep living as we always have. Ultimately, things could be changed and improved for the environment if everyone decided to make better choices on a daily and individual basis!
To branch off of the point about resources in India and China, I also had the opportunity to have lunch with Patrick Barta the other day in Bangkok. Patrick is one of the foreign correspondents for the Wall Street Journal who covers Asia, specifically on the issue of natural resources in India and China. Patrick and I had a great conversation about a lot of things, from our experiences in Asia to how we got to where we are today (I love hearing life stories!) One of the biggest points that Patrick raised that has stuck with me the most since our conversation was about the education system in Asia and its relationship to democracy. As I have written about before with respect to India, and which Patrick told me was common to all of Asia, is that memorization and recitation are the styles of education as opposed to an emphasis on critical thinking and questioning. This is of course not to say that people in Asia simply spit out what they are told, but there is a definite difference in the emphasis on how people are taught to think in American culture versus Asian culture. In terms of democracy, Patrick suggested that a lot of people in Thailand specifically would be more comfortable having the monarchy make decisions for them that are in the best interests of the country instead of continuing with the democracy as it is, which has created such divisiveness and has only been used to serve the corrupt and greedy interests of a few. Again, I was reminded about how important education is to a society, and how people are educated and taught to think plays such a role in how the society is run and also what government may be best suited for it.
I was lucky in Bangkok to be put in touch with so many interesting people who were eager to share their thoughts and opinions about freedom in their respective areas of focus. I was also fortunate to be put in contact with several Vanderbilt alumni who live in Thailand and were so nice to me, taking me out to dinner and showing me Bangkok. A big thanks to Pok, Bussara, and Sanya!
The other day I had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with Thinapan Nakata, a graduate of Vanderbilt’s PhD program in political science. Mr. Nakata is 74 and so full of life and energy, still teaching at a university in Thailand and writing books! He was certainly an interesting person to talk to freedom about, as well as the current political situation in Thailand. I had been caught up in the middle of a massive protest by PAD (the organization discussed in a previous post) earlier that same day and was afraid I meet miss my meeting with Mr. Nakata because of it! For the past 76 years, Thailand has been changing from an absolute monarchy to what Mr. Nakata called a “pseudo-democracy.” In Thailand, the people who have been voted into power are from the wealthy elite, and in Thailand the experiences with this democratic system of voting have brought into office many people who cheat, are corrupt, and abuse their power, making many wary of this system. The word “Thai” itself means free, and Mr. Nakata told me that Thai people love freedom. He described this as being free from under the rules of the game and that Thai people are not accustomed to organization, preferring individualism. I was a little confused by this because I had been under the notion of the “Asian value” of collectivism. However, this individualism he was referring to is deeply influenced by Buddhism, which advocates relying on and improving oneself, through the quest for wisdom and the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Under a Buddhist philosophy, freedom is a very internal, individualistic state of being, free from politics and the outside world, instead seeking freedom through the attainment nirvana and the end of suffering. Mr. Nakata made a distinction between eastern and western societies, saying that in eastern culture they would have a limited degree of freedom of the self, instead preferring what is best for the people and society as a whole rather than on individual interests. When I asked Mr. Nakata about the influence of the west on the east in terms of ideas of freedom, he said that western societies have “brainwashed” people from over the world. While he made it clear that he loves and admires the American system, and is a product of American education, he doesn’t agree with the “intellectual colonialism” of the US exporting democracy to the world. He said that you shouldn’t imitate one thing from one society and simply place it into another society; instead, it should be adapted to suit the needs and wants of the society. By America “spreading freedom,” he believes that it is actually limiting the freedom for the rest of the world in the sense that different societies are losing their ability to choose their own way of life, which may be different from an American standard. So to go off of this point, I asked Mr. Nakata how Thai democracy should be adapted to suit the country, which is currently deeply divided over its democracy and government at the moment. Mr. Nakata believes that there should be one dominant party (not to be confused with a one-party system) for Thai democracy, such as in place in Singapore, Japan, and Malaysia. He thinks that this model would better serve the national interest and solve many of the current problems with Thai democracy, as well as reduce the number of coups (there have been 18 coups since 1932!) I raised the issue, though, of many of the problems of individual liberty in Singapore, for example, and he said that he believes you have to sacrifice individual liberty to create stability, and in Thailand right now, stability is important to achieve to close the rift that is beginning to divide the nation.
Thai people love their King and Queen. Everywhere you can see photographs of the King and Queen, even on the yellow polo shirts that so many Thai people wear to honor the monarchy (pictured below). There are very few things that you can’t do in Thailand, but one of the biggest cultural no-nos in Thailand is to say anything bad about the royal family. You just don’t do it! Thailand’s King is, in fact, the world’s longest reigning monarch at 62 years and counting. I had my first movie going experience in Bangkok the other day and saw the Thai movie E-Tim (with English subtitles!) Comedies are some of the hardest movies to watch in a foreign culture because there are so many jokes you just don’t get as an outsider, but, I was pretty happy that I understood some of them and thought it was a pretty good movie! Before the movie, though, as with all movies in Thailand, the national anthem is played and a short movie honoring the King is played. Everyone stands up to honor both their country and the King that they all love. Long live the King!
In addition to learning about the work of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma, I also sat down to chat with Stephen Hull of a different Burma organization called the Karen Human Rights Group (www.khrg.org). Karen is an ethnic minority in Burma (one of several), and the KHRG focuses mainly on the situation of the Karen population in Burma, specifically on those in rural areas. Through 32 field researchers (who are all Karen themselves), the KHRG works to document human rights abuses and the lives of the rural populations. What I really found interesting about this group, and why I arranged a meeting with them, is their approach to human rights. Unlike several organizations, KHRG doesn’t define human rights for the rural populations or teach them about what rights they have according to the international system, but they ask the rural populations what rights they think they should have and what rights they need and want to live their lives how they want to. For me, this is highly relevant to my project to learn what these rural populations, in an incredibly oppressive system, feel they need in order to have freedom. From talking to Stephen, socio-economic rights are of upmost importance to the rural communities, with the ability to farm their fields in peace in order to feed their families and send their children to school as the rights they want. Stephen believes that there has been an overemphasis on civil and political rights in the Burma situation, and while he supports the pro-democracy work for Burma, democracy won’t make some of these core issues of poverty go away. India is an example of a country, which is a democracy, where so much of its society lives in poverty without having their basic needs met, so spreading democracy is not the end all be all of bringing freedom to countries if freedom is conceived of holistically rather than just politically.
Another interesting point from my discussion with Stephen is how the KHRG is trying to remove the image of the people in Burma as simply “helpless victims.” There are resistance movements going on inside of the country, and not just through those directly involved in political movements to bring democracy to the country. Many of the rural populations in Burma participate in silent and subtle resistance to the oppressive military government. This resistance isn’t overt and isn’t meant to be visible, but it is there. For example, there is a huge problem of forced labor in Burma, with soldiers coming and requiring one person from each household in the villages to work on projects. Sometimes, though, the village head will lie about the number of households in the village in order to send less people to these projects. Bribery and negotiation are also other tactics of resistance, as well as fleeing to the hillsides to live as internally displaced populations—choosing to abandon their villages and hide from the military, not simply out of fear, but in order to not have to live under military control. Rural areas are especially dangerous in Burma. Of course, cities are not much better, but the government puts up more of a façade in the cities because those are the places that people visit. The real situation in Burma can be seen in the rural areas, which are the parts of Burma that the government does not want anyone to see.
Stephen believes that there is a possibility of change in Burma even before a democratically elected government in place. Bringing democracy to Burma is a distant goal, but if the focus becomes on bringing freedom of livelihood at the local level to the population, then there can be successes. Of course, though, poverty is created by abuse and poverty is not apolitical, so changing the government in Burma is important, and democracy is probably the “least worst” form of government. Stephen believes that more support needs to be given to local initiatives in Burma through development aid and to challenge the arbitrary exercise of power in the state. Stephen told me about a quote he read by Ardeth Maung Thawghmung, someone who has written extensively on the situation of the rural populations in Burma, that reads: “Under military rule we have to grow rice, under democracy we have to grow rice.” I think this quote really sums up what I took from my discussion with Stephen. No matter what type of government is in place, people have basic needs in order to survive, and for me, I often take satisfying these basic needs for granted and don’t think about their interplay with the freedom I have. However, if someone can’t eat, obtain an education, live free from constant abuse, does it really matter if they can vote or that their government was elected freely if they are still suffering?
Off of the subject of Burma, but on the subject of democracy and voting, the world is tuned into the elections in the USA and I haven’t had any trouble keeping up with the elections through the media while in Asia and have seen all of the debates (and even the SNL skits of the debates, thanks to the internet). In discussions with people and with just thinking about democracy in general a lot lately, I think there is a central problem in America when we try to export democracy to other places, yet many people don’t realize the responsibilities that we have living under a democracy, such as being informed about the issues and voting! I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I was going to vote in this election, and the answer is, I already have! Through an absentee ballot, I was able to participate in this important election even from so far away from America. So, as the big day approaches, I encourage everyone to participate in the painless process of voting and to remember that in a lot of places in the world, people cannot participate in their government, and many people have fought and are fighting (and dying) for the rights that we have. If I can vote in our elections from Singapore, make the short trip to your local polling place and vote!
If there is one thing Bangkok is famous for, it is most certainly its traffic. While it doesn’t usually affect me too much because I generally walk or take the Sky Train, it does make it really difficult to cross the street! Oh sure, there are cross walks here, but cars don’t stop for pedestrians who are waiting there (which makes sense, there are so many people!) Whenever I need to cross the street I always wait for a native person to walk with (read human shield). However, this method doesn’t work very much for me because I tend to get distracted by something, and when I turn to look beside me, the person I was going to walk with is already across the street, so I proceed to wait for someone else. Sometimes it’s taken me a good 10-15 minutes just to get to the other side of the road! When I asked some of the guys at the FTU-B office for advice on how to cross the street, they told me to “Just walk, the cars will stop.” Ha! This totally counters my childhood lessons of “Stop, Look, and Listen before you cross the street.” I’m not really sure if the cars will stop, but they are pretty good at avoiding pedestrians. I’ve gotten a little better at crossing the street, and it only takes me about 5 minutes now. So far a car hasn’t hit me, which is more than I can say for my friend Michael who is spending the year abroad in Germany!
One thing that I think is great about Bangkok is its “sidewalk culture.” What I mean by this is that random markets and sellers will pop up on the sidewalks, selling anything from DVDs to watches to clothes. The vendors and locations seem to change daily! Also, many sidewalks also become restaurants for street food, which is pretty great stuff and so much cheaper than the restaurants (only 30 baht for a meal, which is less than $1)! I wasn’t sure how this system worked at first, though. There are tables outside that you can sit at, and there are tons of different carts that make lots of different foods, except I didn’t know what cart made what or how to order. So, once again I asked the helpful people from FTU-B (mainly Zaw, whose nickname is Lada, which means vulture—he is really nice, though, I just have to give him a hard time) how to get street food. To this he replied, “Just point.” That works at certain stalls, but that still didn’t answer how you sit down at the tables and know what they serve there! Zaw was nice enough to give me both a lesson in crossing the street on the way to my lesson on how to order street food and what stalls served what on my street. Now I can order noodles! I just have to makes sure that I go to a place that serves noodles….
Being abroad makes you realize how challenging “simple” things can become when you’re in different culture. Each day is a lesson, and slowly I’m learning how things work and adapting to the culture in Bangkok, which always keeps me on my toes and of course, makes life interesting!
While in Bangkok I have had my first CouchSurfing experience! The CouchSurfing Project (www.couchsurfing.com) is a non-profit organization working to unite the world through creating an international community of hosts and travelers. Members create profiles and either offer their homes as free accommodation for travelers or meet people for coffee or to show travelers around their cities. Anyone who wants to participate can do so simply by creating a profile and having a sense of hospitality and adventure. Importantly, CouchSurfing is more about the cultural exchange than simply a free place to crash. The mission of CouchSurfing is to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.” Through CouchSurfing I met Ampere, a 22-year-old student studying economics at Thammasat University in Bangkok. We met on Saturday and she took me to the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market and spent all day shopping (navigating this enormous and crowded market and avoiding pickpockets!) and chatting. She even ordered me some Black Jelly (I’m pictured below having my first bite….what an interesting treat!) Ampere studied abroad for a year in the United States around the San Diego area a few years ago, so we had a lot of stories to share about our abroad experiences! I really enjoy meeting people my age from the around the world, comparing our experiences and learning what life is like in different cultures. I definitely encourage anyone who thinks they might want to participate in the project to create a profile and see the massive network of people are being connected throughout the world through the Internet. It is also a lot safer than it sounds, with different security mechanisms in place to protect both hosts and travelers, but really relies on the pure motives of those joining to create an atmosphere of cultural exchange, learning, and international hospitality!
I love this quote by Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous Burmese pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma. As many people know, she is a noted prisoner of conscience and Nobel Peace Prize recipient currently under house arrest in Burma. I think this quote and the situation in Burma really get to the crux of what I am hoping to do and learn under the theme of freedom. The Burmese are some of the most oppressed people in the world, and I am trying to learn from those who have escaped from Burma to come to Thailand what freedom means to them now and what they hope to bring to their people. I also hope to remind those of us who cannot imagine such gross violations of human rights to remember what freedoms we have and to think about their importance to us, and, as Aung San Suu Kyi says, to use the liberty that we to be a voice for those who cannot speak and to promote change for those who have severe limitations on their freedoms, either from poverty, lack of education, an oppressive military government, or a myriad of other reasons. As I wrote about many months ago when I went to Boston for the conference on Freedom, Tolerance, and Civil Society, I had the chance to meet Melissa Bates, a 2005 Vanderbilt graduate, who is currently working for a pro-democracy organization for Burma called the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB) (www.ftub.org). Now that I am in Bangkok I have had the chance to go to the office of her organization and meet some of her co-workers, most of whom are Burmese refugees. There are a lot of organizations working for change in Burma to end the rule by one of the most brutal military regimes in history, and the mission of the FTU-B is “to restore democracy, human rights, and trade union rights to Burma, to establish the system that guarantees free trade unions, and to achieve equal distribution of wealth by emphasizing equal opportunities.” FTU-B is working to abolish forced labor in Burma, protect the rights of migrant workers from Burma seeking employment in neighboring countries, provide basic education to the children of migrant workers, provide basic democracy and human rights trainings, and provide basic and advanced trade unions trainings. While the work of the FTU-B is interesting, I think that I personally got the most out of my meetings with the people who work for this organization by hearing their personal experiences of growing up in Burma and living in exile in Thailand.
Burma achieved independence from Britain in 1948 and was a democratic republic from 1948 until 1962. In 1962, democratic rule ended when General Ne Win led a military coup. In 1988 students led a democracy uprising in which thousands were massacred by the military. Many of the people who work at the FTU-B with whom I have met in Bangkok were involved in this 1988 student uprising and spent time in prison for their involvement, subsequently escaping to Thailand but having to leave behind their homes, families, and businesses without the possibility of ever returning to their home country. Tin Tun Aung, one of the people involved in the uprising and currently in charge of the migrant workers project, told me that growing up under the military rule people had no idea of what freedom was, especially those born after 1962 who had not experienced democracy in Burma from 1948-1962. The government completely controlled the media and education system, effectively becoming the eyes and ears of the Burmese people, but I don’t think they could ever control the soul of those in Burma and the desire for something more as is evidenced by the uprising and work of so many of those who escaped Burma and are dedicating their lives to changing the situation in their home land, leaving behind those they love in order to try to save the country they love. I asked Ronnie, another Burmese refugee who works for the FTU-B, how they had learned about freedom and had become involved in the student uprisings of 1988, and he said it was from his one of his teachers who was his mentor who had experienced and known Burma before the military regime. From what I have learned by talking to those at the FTU-B, Burma’s economy would be crippled if countries such as India and China would impose sanctions on Burma as the USA has. However, Burma is rich in natural resources and cheap labor, meaning that the countries that could help stop the human rights abuses in Burma benefit the most by an undemocratic Burma, regardless of the atrocities happening to those living in Burma.
A question that has come to my mind since leaving India is if western ideals of freedom have become a universal idea of freedom or if there are cultural and regional variations on what freedom means. So far, I am finding that amongst the people I have talked to there is pretty much a consensus on what freedom means, which includes freedom of press, speech, assembly, religion, assembly, and living under a democratic government. However, so far I’ve spent a lot of time in larger cities that are very globalized, and the people I’ve talked to are among the most educated in their society, so I think those factors play a large role in the responses I’ve received to what freedom means. It is my hope to try to get out of the larger cities and go into environments that have less of a western influence to continue exploring if there are cultural variations to what freedom means. When I asked Ronnie the question of if there are any cultural variations on freedom, he responded that because all people are human beings—that we all laugh, cry, and feel—that there is not a different definition of freedom for people just because they are from different parts of the world. Everyone deserves and wants the same freedoms. Maybe freedom has become a universally understood concept, but I hope to continue to explore the roots of this idea and travel to areas with less western influence to see if, just maybe, there are differences in how freedom is viewed around the world.
I arrived in Bangkok only a few days ago but I already love it! I was graciously picked up by the airport by Aree, a friend of my neighbor at home in Wichita. Aree is Thai but lived in America for several years, completing her undergraduate degree at Kansas State University. I have to admit it made me realize how interconnected the world is as I was being driven to my guesthouse from the airport in Bangkok in a car with a Kansas State University sticker on it! Aree has also taken me out for great Thai food and shown me some interesting places in Bangkok, and having her as a resource has been so wonderful!
The last few days in Bangkok have been spent both exploring the city and laying the groundwork for meetings with different organizations and people. Bangkok is a typical large, bustling city, and everything you could possibly want is easily accessible. I’m finding it very easy to get around as many signs are in English or written in Romanized letters, and the people are so friendly and generally speak enough English to answer my questions. Right now, though, there is some unrest in the city caused by the death of two protestors and the injuries of hundred of others after a recent clash on Oct. 7 with an anti-government group called PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) and the police. To give a brief background on the current political situation in Thailand, there was a military coup in Thailand in 2006 that removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. From the people I’ve talked to in Thailand about Thaksin, they said that his election was a huge step backward for Thai democracy when he came into office in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005. Thaksin’s government was frequently accused of corruption, authoritarianism, demogagy, and hostility towards free press, to name a few areas in which the government was not living up to the ideals of democracy. For 15 months after the coup that disposed Thaksin there was a benign military rule in Thailand, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and a general election that returned to power a party run by Mr. Thaksin’s allies. PAD emerged in September 2005 as a personal crusade by a one-time supporter of Thaksin, and while many thought they had heard the last from PAD, the movement resurfaced again this May. PAD rejected the election victory of the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party in December and still feels that Thaksin has control over the government. There is a lot more to this issue, but in the interest of countering my typical long-windedness, I will provide a link to an article that explains the situation pretty clearly (of course there are multiple opinions and readings into this situation, so I encourage anyone who is interested in the situation to look at different sources): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7584369.stm. I think the news coverage of this situation, which is prevalent in the newspapers and on television, is a testimony to the free press in Thailand. Nothing appears to be hidden (especially many grisly images on the front page of the newspapers), and there seems to be a thriving opinions section that is providing a balanced view of the situation.
My last few days in India were quite memorable after catching a much-dreaded parasite! The morning of my flight to Chennai, I became quite ill but attributed it to a lack of sleep rather than anything serious. However, I soon realized that it was going to be a long day, one in which I was seriously ill the entire way to my hotel in Chennai. I was so close to traveling around India without getting sick! After one pretty miserable day in Chennai, I started to feel a little better, but still not 100%, so I took it easy in the city my three days there. I thought that I was back to normal, except I got sick again right before my flight to Singapore! What an eventful few days! On my last day in Chennai I met a nice Israeli traveler who helped me out immensely as I become ill again right before my taxi ride to the airport. I’m not sure exactly what he gave, but his magical Israeli medicine worked wonders and got me through the short flight from Chennai to Singapore. I arrived in Singapore very early in the morning and was greeted by the most beautiful airport I have ever seen! The Singapore Changi airport is like a little city in and of itself, and I knew that Singapore has the reputation of being quite clean, but this is beyond anything I could have imagined! It is such a change of pace from India.
My time in Singapore has served as more of a restorative phase in my travels after my adventures in India and before my time in Thailand. My dad even came to visit me from Kansas, so together we have toured one of the most modern, efficient cities in Asia. While I haven’t had any meetings while in Singapore, there is definitely a different feeling about this country in terms of freedom than in India. In India, I really felt that anything could go, which at times led to quite a chaotic environment. Laws, especially those involving traffic and public urination, were rarely followed or enforced. In Singapore, there is a lot more order, but I find myself wondering what little things I may be doing that may be breaking a Singaporean law, although there are signs all over the place telling the fines for certain activities, such as eating and drinking on the metro (S$500). According to Freedom House, Singapore is only a Partly Free country, with a political freedom score of 5 (with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least free) and a civil liberties score of 4. Singapore is not an electoral democracy, and while it operates under a parliamentary system and holds regular elections, the ruling party dominates the political process by handicapping opposition parties. Singapore’s media is tightly constrained, with all newspapers, radio stations, and television channels owned by government-linked companies. In terms of media freedom, Singapore is considered “Not Free,” and it may be worse than even reported as many journalists practice self-censorship to avoid punishment. Freedom of association is restricted as groups of 10 or more must register with the government, and in terms of academic freedom, all public universities and political research institutions have direct links to the government. Some religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned. This information has been summarized from the Freedom House report I read, and is only meant to give a small picture of some of the restrictions on freedom in Singapore. However, despite the lack of freedom in these realms, Singapore is an economic powerhouse and there is such a difference in standard of living and lifestyle in Singapore as compared to India. However, the poverty in Singapore is more hidden than in India, so it is hard for someone just passing through like me to gauge the situation of the poor living in Singaporean society.
Singapore has been such a great place to visit, though. While a very small city-state, my dad and I have kept ourselves entertained for the last six days, and I have gained back all of the weight I lost during my illness thanks to a couple of men named Ben and Jerry. Tomorrow I fly to Bangkok to begin my month exploration of freedom in Thailand renewed and refreshed by my time in Singapore!