The Myth of the Rational Voter – Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Dipping into Facebook this last week has been repulsive. The thinly-veiled vitriol from all sides on so-called hot-potato issues like the AHPETC accounts and CPF.

Most annoying of course, is people button-holing you after church or at lunch to talk politics. But when asked to explain their anger about current policies or hostility towards the incumbent governing party (the People’s Action Party), they repeat rather selfish complaints (eg. I want money and I want it now) without any constructive alternative solution to the stated problem (probable failure to save for housing and retirement).

And just asking for more substantial views then gets you the accusatory finger of “oooohhh, someone’s pro-PAP”.

[In the spirit of “no link lei”, here are some gratuitous photos of food.]

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohSo it’s Cooling Off Day. One day to think rationally about the choices we are to make at the ballot boxes for the Singapore General Elections 2015 tomorrow.

Amidst the thick haze, there is a cacophony of noise – and it sounds just like lemmings running at full tilt, blinded by biases:

anti-government, anti-authority bias

  • we are unhappy. Therefore, something, or everything!, about the government is making us unhappy.
  • we don’t have the power the government has. Therefore, they are oppressing us and we are marginalised (or we will find people who look like they are victims – single mothers, singles, self-identified LGBT, minority races, low wage earners). They are arrogant and out-of-touch, we are the people who really know what’s going on.

We find it easy to love those who are worse-off than us; who, conspicuously, have less power or money. For no substantial reason, they seem more authentic.

This is why José Mujica, the last president of Uruguay, acquired some international fame as the “world’s poorest president”. His austerity has been an inspiration to a world so engorged with possessions that “de-cluttering” is one of the newest fads. But governing a country requires more than that. New Republic tried to find out if he actually improved the lives of the Uruguayans, and discovered some disappointment. So Eve Fairbanks reflects, philosophically:

It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short…

We’re searching for the one figure who can break the binds. We want someone simply different enough to plot a new direction for a world that often feels full of deadly momentum toward existential decay and harder to steer than the hurtling Titanic.

Because actual experience tends to reveal the limits of candidates’ power, we’re also drawn to heroes with less and less experience, blank slates onto which we can project our fantasies for change.

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi, once the icon for a liberal marketing basket of peaceful demonstrations, democracy, human rights, progressiveness etc? Now that she’s got some political power, the junta smirk as she too has been coming under fire – in the last few years, for her silence about the plight of the Muslim Rohingya in West Burma. Her halo has slipped, tarnished, said some. She’s acting just like a “any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy”, say others. Oh and why not just accuse her of bad faith and say she’s “taken advantage of the perception of her as an unerring statesman and humanitarian and chosen to collude with tyranny against the people who need her most”.

Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan states four other major biases that affect the electorate’s rationality and critical thinking faculties. Courtesy of The Economist:

  • anti-market bias

People don’t understand that the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits. There is the tendency to underestimate the benefits of the market economy.

Most people fancy themselves to be victims of the market to be preyed on by corporations (the “greedy monopolists”), rather than as they really are – participants in the market.

When asked why petrol prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Yet economists nearly all attribute it to the law of supply and demand. If petrol prices rise because oil firms want higher profits, why would they sometimes fall?

  • anti-foreign bias

People underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners. They tend to see foreigners as the enemies.

“Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do. People understand that the local hardware store will sell them a better, cheaper hammer than they can make for themselves. Yet they are squeamish about trade with foreigners, and even more so about foreigners who enter their country to do jobs they spurn. Hence the reluctance of Democratic presidential candidates to defend free trade, even when they know it will make most voters better off, and the reluctance of their Republican counterparts to defend George Bush’s liberal line on immigration.”

black pepper crab, Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

    • make-work bias

People equate prosperity with employment rather than production.

“The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” For an individual, the make-work bias makes some sense. He prospers if he has a job, and may lose his health insurance if he is laid off. For the nation as a whole, however, what matters is not whether people have jobs, but how they do them. The more people produce, the greater the general prosperity. It helps, therefore, if people shift from less productive occupations to more productive ones. Economists, recalling that before the industrial revolution 95% of Americans were farmers, worry far less about downsizing than ordinary people do. Politicians, however, follow the lead of ordinary people. Hence, to take a more frivolous example, Oregon’s ban on self-service petrol stations.”

    • bias towards pessimism

People tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are.

“The public’s pessimism is evident in its belief that most new jobs tend to be low-paying, that our children will be worse off than we are and that society is going to hell in a variety of ways. Economists, despite their dismal reputation, tend to be cheerier. Politicians have to strike a balance. They often find it useful to inflame public fears, but they have to sound confident that things will get better if they are elected.”

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohAnd what does this all translate to at the ballot boxes on polling day?

Caplan says:

“Since delusional political beliefs are free [ie. cost them nothing], the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

“The same people who practice intellectual self-discipline when they figure out how to commute to work, repair a car, buy a house, or land a job “let themselves go” when they contemplate the effects of protectionism, gun control, or pharmaceutical regulation.”

Is a democracy (however defined) better than an authoritarian regime? Is living under an elected government better than being ruled by a sovereign?

At the end of the day, one thing is clear – we are all sinful people (voters, politicians, government types, rebels) who must try to regulate our societies the best we can under the circumstances of this fallen world. But even in the midst of the frustration of it all, we look forward to a day when the whole world will be ruled by Jesus who is God himself, who is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly wise, and to whom we can submit wholeheartedly.

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

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The Thought Collective’s Diverse-city Trails: Little India Trail

Enjoyed The Thought Collective‘s Diverse-city Little India Trail. With such a groan-worthy pun, no prizes for guessing that there is a link Ben & Jerry’s, of the delicious ice-cream-with-corny-names fame.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeThe aim of these Trails (there are two others in this series – one in Toa Payoh and the other in Jalan Besar):

Thinkscape’s [Learning Experiences (LEs)] are designed to help people see current issues and institutions in a new light. We hope to help participants develop a sense of ownership over these issues, and propel them towards meaningful and much needed action. Thinkscape also aims to be a citizenship portal for young people. We encourage youths to explore and form opinions on issues critical to Singapore’s survival and success, maturing their own narratives and building harmony with our nation’s broader story.

The pedagogical approach appears to be one of curated social learning (if there’s such a thing! and vs. social constructivism) through the lens of narrative inquiry:

Thinkscape creates experiences that advocate new perspectives on industries, institutions and issues in Singapore. We believe that experience is a powerful means to bring conviction and reality to our learning.

Thinkscape’s Learning Experiences (LEs) take the form of trails and workshops, and are designed by The Thought Collective, which comprises of educators, social innovators and advisers from public agencies and civil society groups. Through building narratives for Singapore, we aspire towards transforming the social and emotional capital of our nation.

Having just returned to Singapore, I was keen to get to know certain areas again. Little India was one of the places I’d spent quite a bit of time in the past. Still, the trail was eye-opening.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeSome part of the trail (tour!) was an introduction to the Little India world through the lens of a Indian transient worker, usually working in the construction industry: here is where you’d go to get comfort food when you are off sick, here is where you watch your beloved cricket matches, etc.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Other bits helped us interrogate the architecture and use of space of the area – to understand the demographic and social changes that (may) have taken place in the last few years.

We were fortunate to meet the one of the few garland weavers left in Singapore. He had previously spoken to our trail leader of the frustration of not finding a worthy successor. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Certain structures and signs (green fences, an open space converted into a car park, a row of shops, prohibition signs, and void deck obstacles were pointed out. They were put in place to discourage the congregation of foreign workers in those spaces, especially during the weekends, and to stop them from cycling through the void deck. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

We peeked into some living spaces in pretty old terraces along Rowell Road, and then took a brisk walk through the red-lit back alley of Desker Road: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Then there was the opportunity to talk to people in the Lembu Road open-space: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

The pedagogical methodology of “experience and explore” rather than “educate” meant the trail leader’s commentary was somewhat ambiguous, though leaning slightly to the left. This seemed merely to reinforce the perceptions already in the minds of the participants (by sample size of people paying good money to walk around their own country, probably already laden with certain sympathies).

If I’d led the trail, I’d wanted to have been explicit about the concerns and cares of all stakeholders concerned in each case.

Assuming the first step to social cohesion is understanding the perspectives of a group you would not normally hear from or sympathise with, then airtime must be given to both the perceived victim (in this case, the migrant workers) and the perceived oppressor (usually, the rich, the ones in authority – the government or employers, the majority race):

  • not just to transient workers who may be lodged in overcrowded dormitories and have fallen foul of poor workplace practices, but to their employers who may have taken all measures to prevent such things from happening;
  • not just to foreign labourers with no place to congregate, but also to the old people living in the flats above who find themselves living their twilight years almost as if they themselves were in a foreign land, or think themselves in constant danger (a fear either baseless or based on experience) of being forcefully robbed and falling and hitting their head, etc.

I think we have all already been well-fed on the usual tropes of poor victimised migrant worker, and rich fat cat oppressive people in power. But the world is more complex than that, and there are more narratives (and not very straight-forward ones at that) from sinful people than we would like to listen to. Not all poor people are honest or un-opportunistic or non-manipulative; not all the rich got that way by stealing nor will they always fail to care for their workers. We need to be able to give all sides a fair hearing to be able to empathise, and seek real solutions. This is what justice looks like.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-3)

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15)

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeGot a bit fed-up with an Australian on the trail, who rolled out the usual “look at all the shiny condominiums and skyscrapers you have in Singapore, built by the blood of Indian workers. You don’t bother with proper safety regulations. And when they fall sick or have an accident, you send them home. You use and dispose them. Exploitation!”

When different groups spoke with various workers chillaxing in the square, they cheerfully assured us that not only were they cognisant of the necessary safety requirements (helmet, vest, ropes, belts, practices), they also knew the Ministry of Manpower guidelines for pay, overtime work, days of leave etc. And they were happy here. There was no work at home, so any sort of work in Singapore was a godsend.

And I recalled acquaintances in the real estate industry wringing their hands over how, much as they tried to implement safety practices on worksites, holding weekly nagging sessions, checking safety gear at the gate, implementing spot-checks, and even fines, terrible accidents still occurred. Some workers, convinced that this namby-pamby society was encumbering them with all sorts of unnecessary safety equipment took them off at every opportunity.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeIn addition to the need for multiple perspectives on certain social issues, I thought there was too much conflation of the purported aim of the trail. The trail leader kept asking what could be done to help transient workers to “integrate” and “assimiliate“. As a Malaysian Indian and I pointed out, (i) it takes two hands to clap; and (ii) transient workers aren’t interested in integrating or assimilating. They were here to earn money to pay off agent fees, then send the bulk back to family, and hopefully save enough to return home and raise their kids and start their own business. And this isn’t just the goal of transient workers but also more generally of the bulk of white-collar types like teachers, IT professionals, researchers.

Being clear about the aim helps us craft solutions more specifically. So while there is no need to help them to assimilate into Singapore society, there is alot that can be done to make them feel welcome in our country, just like you would a visitor to your home.

Little Vietnam (Guillemard Road) and Immigration Policies

Had my pho fix on the way home from London, but we were quite happy to help F satiate her Vietnamese food craving at Little Vietnam Restaurant (facebook, 511 Guillemard Road, #01-25, Grandlink Square). Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Possibly because the place was staffed by Vietnamese people, the pho, bun bo hue, bun xeo, and fried quail tasted exactly right.

What a pity if Singapore, like so many countries in Europe and in the rest of the “Western” world, were to close her borders to immigrants. We would lose more than good food from around the world.

Remember Philipp Rösler, the dynamic Vice-Chancellor of Germany a few years ago? He was born in Vietnam, adopted and raised in Germany, and identified as a German. Yet, his “Asian face” was raised as an issue, instead of his achievements as Health Minister and Federal Minister of Economics and Technology. Whether or not this was the reason why his party did badly at the polls, he resigned as chairman of the Free Democratic Party thereafter, and is now on the board of the World Economic Forum. If race had indeed been an issue, it would have been stupid of the Germans to deprive themselves of a good public servant just because of a problem with the colour of his skin, not with his intellect or leadership or integrity.

A few months ago, I commented to an Indonesian friend that the dislike of foreigners seemed quite rife in the Singapore society I’d returned to.

“Not dislike, she’d said,”outright hatred.”

“The government keeps bringing in foreign talent who take our jobs” goes the common refrain, not just in Singapore, but all around the world. But surely this xenophobia bodes especially badly for Singapore.

quail. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Taking a leaf again from Rawls and applying the presumption of good faith, I thought to examine Lee Kuan Yew’s past speeches to understand the rationale for our immigration policies, and not only that but how the need for talent for the survival of the nation impacts taxation and education policies:

  • the need for talented people to lead the country:

    From 23 years of experience in government, I have learned that one high-calibre mind in charge of a Ministry, or a Statutory Board, makes the difference between success and failure of a major project. A top mind, given a task, brings together a group of other able men, organizes them into a cohesive team, and away the project goes.

    That was the way Goh Keng Swee set about the Ministry of Finance in June 1959. He picked Hon Sui Sen as his principal lieutenant, Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Finance), and then in 1961 made him Chairman of the EDB. Hon Sui Sen collected an able team in the EDB and Singapore’s industrialization slowly and steadily gathered steam.

    Even in 1982, I find it difficult to imagine how we could have made the economic development of the last 23 years without the ability, the creativity, and the drive of these two able men. Whenever I had lesser men in charge, the average or slightly above-average, I have had to keep pushing and probing them, to review problems, to identify roadblocks, to suggest solutions, to come back and to discover that less than the best has been achieved.

  • the inability of Singapore to withstand potential harm brought about by mediocre leaders:

    Decline into mediocrity disastrous

    There may be those who believe that having sound men with modest minds in charge of the government will not make all that difference. Indeed, an anti-elitist ethos prevails in many Western countries, especially amongst New Left groups in Britain. They glorify mediocrity into a cult. They condemn excellence as elitism. They advocate wild programmes to dismantle their own institutions of excellence because the children of manual workers are under-represented in these institutions.

    There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunities ever take control of the government of Singapore. And mediocrities and opportunities can accidentally take over if Singaporeans, in a fit of pique or a moment of madness, voted for the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. Five years of such a government, probably a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees. What has taken decades to build up in social organization, in industry, banking commerce, tourism, will be dismantled and demolished in a few years. The World Bank has a queue of such broken-back countries waiting to be mended: Jamaica, Uganda, Ghana, Nicaragua, to name a few recent casualties seeking emergency World Bank aid. At least they have land for plantations or mines to dig from, or rivers to be dammed for hydro-power and irrigation. Singapore has only got its strategic location and the people who can maximize this location by organization, management, skills and, most important of all, brains. Once in disarray, it will not be possible to put it together again.

    Singapore, a small, barely established, nation, cannot afford to have anything less than her ablest and her best, to be in charge of the government. If we are to preserve what we have, and more, to build on the present, and achieve further heights, we cannot have mediocrities either as Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. Prompters and ghost-writers are a luxury for those who have large margins of safety due to their large size, great wealth, and considerable institutional strength.

  • the negative knock-on effects of having mediocre or bad leaders:

    Here we see a law similar to Gresham’s at work. Gresham pointed that bad money drives out good money from circulation. Well, bad leaders drive out good men from high positions. Idi Amin was a bad leader. He killed or drove out good Ugandans, ruining Uganda for decades. Solomon Bandaranaike was not an evil man like Amin. But he was a bad leader who brought race, language and religion into the centre of political debate. He ended up, intentionally or otherwise, by driving out good Ceylonese, and later Sri Lankans, from politics, whilst able administrators took jobs in UN agencies, leaving their own administration impoverished of talent. On the other hand, a good leader, in government or in large corporations, attracts and recruits top talent to reinforce his own capability to overcome problems. Hence the high quality of Germans in top position under Konrad Adenauer, and of top Frenchmen under Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle’s Cabinet included Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, both to become French Presidents.

Ok great, one might say, so where can we find this talent? What about within the Singapore population?

  • the lack of natural talent in Singapore due to its small population:

    What was the most important single factor for Singapore’s rapid development since 1959? Without hesitation, my answer is the quality of the people. For not only are our people hardworking, quick to learn and practical, Singapore also had an extra thick layer of high calibre and trained talent . In the protocol list of the first seven persons in Singapore, I am the only Singapore-born. The President, CV Devan Nair, the Chief of Justice, Wee Chong Jin, the Speaker, Yeoh Ghim Seng, the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, and the Minister for Finance, Hon Sui Sen, were not born in Singapore. One Singapore-born out of the top seven Singaporeans! This is the size of the contribution from the non-Singapore-born. If we had relied solely upon the talent of our natural population pyramid, Singapore’s performance would not have been half as good.

  • well what about giving scholarships so that our best and brightest will, in return for university expenses being paid for, come back to contribute to society? Well, we know how that’s going – scholarship holders accuse the government of violating their rights and tricking them into bondage for a few years while they were still teenagers! They feel justified in breaking their bonds for better job offers elsewhere.
  • the lack of a wide range of talent even amongst remaining non-bond-breaking scholars:

    Let me spell out our talent problem. Most of our scholars went into medicine, the law and engineering, but none into banking or finance because they were professions that were not open to our bright students. Even now our banks want to reserve their top jobs for the sons of the families that control them. Moreover we draw our talent from only 3 million people. A short mountain range is unlikely to have peaks that can equal Mt Everest. You need a long mountain range like the Himalayas…

  • the lack of necessary leadership traits in remaining non-bond-breaking talented scholars:

    Alas, not all of these bright minds have strong characters, sound temperament, and high motivation to match their high intelligence. I have found, from studying PSC scholarship awards for the last 15 years, and reading confidential reports on their work in the public service and the SAF, that the scholars who also have the right character and personality, effectively works out to 1 in 3,000 persons. In the 1970’s, our annual births went down to 40,000. The numbers of talented and balanced Singaporeans will be between 12-14 persons per annum at one per 3,000.

bun bo hue. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

That’s tough. How can we get this paltry number to stay in Singapore? Well, there are school programmes to instil love for the nation in schools but many teachers and students and parents dismiss them as mere propaganda, not realising that it’s not the PAP who will lose out but they themselves. And perhaps, also, it means we can’t assume that all theories of distributive justice and equality of opportunities are right in all circumstances and can be applied wholesale to the Singapore context:

  • preventing brain-drain by instilling patriotism and self-respect, and holding off punitive taxation:

    Now, we ourselves may be threatened by a brain-drain of Singapore-grown talent. These figures have serious implications for us. The figures for engineers and other professionals are less devastating only because they are less professionally mobile across national boundaries. Unless we are able to instill patriotism and self-respect, unless we succeed in inculcating a sense of commitment to fellow-Singaporeans in our talented youths, we can be creamed off. We shall become diluted like skimmed milk. We must ensure that because Singaporeans value their Asianness, they will not want to be tolerated and patronized as minorities in predominantly Caucasian societies. Therefore, any policy which denies trained talent its free-market rewards by punitive taxes, as in Britain, must lead to a brain-drain and to our inevitable decline. It is the chicken and egg cycle. As long as we are able and growing, our talented will stay and help our economic growth. Because they stay, we can offer them comparable standards of life, and decent prospects for their children’s future. Furthermore, we can attract talent from abroad to work in Singapore. The reverse cycle will be devastating and swift in bringing about our ruin.

    The Singapore-born must be the pillars on which we can place the cross beams and struts of foreign-born talent to raise us up to higher standards of achievement. If we begin to lose our own Singapore-born and bred talent in significant numbers, then the pillars are weakened, and additional cross beams and struts cannot make up for pillars. The Singapore-grown talent must, by the nature of his upbringing and schooling, be the most committed, the most emotionally and intimately attached to Singapore. We shall lose our own Singapore-grown talent if our policies punish the outstanding and the talented by progressive income tax with the objective of income redistribution. It has happened in an old established society like Britain.

  • amidst the usual sometimes green-eyed chatter about growing income inequality, and the common sneering at elite schools and disdaining the perceived elitism of the Gifted Education Programme, training and rewarding the talented might actually be the best for the whole society:

    It is in the interest of the not-so-talented that the talented should be adequately rewarded for the contribution they can make to the total progress of Singapore. Drained of our trained talent, Singapore will be like a man with a truncated right arm, unable to function effectively.

    If a brain-drain ever happens in Singapore, if our brightest and our best scatter abroad, because of populist appeals to soak or squeeze our able and successful professionals to subsidize those who are less able, less educated, and less well-paid, Singapore will be ruined. The sufferers will be the mass of the workers and their families who cannot emigrate because they are not wanted by the wealthy and developed English speaking countries.

And since we have such a small local pool of talent, who may not even stay in Singapore, how can we entice foreign talent to come and help us survive in the future? Foreigners “prepared to start life afresh in a strange new environment, are usually exceptional in enterprise, drive and determination to succeed – key attributes for high performance”.

  • Everyone knows that Shanghainese are the brightest and sharpest of people. But few know why. It is because for over a hundred and fifty years, ever since it became a treaty port for the foreign powers it has drawn the ambitious, energetic Unless we change our mindsets, we will be out of this race. We have to go out to tap talent. To get top talent, you must take in those who have not yet reached the top but are on their way up because when they are in their 30s we do not know which of them will make it to the top. You will only know when they are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. This is the way to protect our future.

  • Singaporeans must realize and accept as desirable the need for more of the able and the talented to come to work in Singapore. We have to compete against the wealthy developed countries who now also recruit such talent. We have to make these people feel welcome and wanted, so that they will make Singapore their permanent home and contribute to the overall progress of all our people. We should encourage them to take up permanent residence with a view to citizenship so that they can enjoy the same opportunities to buy HDB executive flats and HUDC homes as Singaporeans, and to shoulder the same responsibilities. They can give that extra boost which has lifted our economy andour society to heights we could not have achieved if we had depended only on Singapore-born talent.

all quotes a mash-up from: “THE SEARCH FOR TALENT” BY LEE KUAN YEW, PRIME MINISTER

And also this arrow from LKY:

Instead of getting high quality men; we have imported over 150,000 unskilled workers as work permit holders. Instead of importing first-class brains, we have imported unskilled brawn. To continue this policy is to court disaster.

LKY was a magnificently holistic thinker. As Christians though, we have even more reason to welcome foreigners whether of the brain or brawn variety. Though we are not part of a nation like Israel, nor do we intend to build a nation in this world, the rationale for care-for-sojourner still stands:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Actually, our incentives are greater – we haven’t just been rescued from slavery and brought to a mere physical Promised Land as the Jews were; we have been rescued from spiritual darkness and eternal death and brought into the light and given eternal life. And we have been given God’s Spirit in us who helps us think his thoughts after him. So if God does not change, then his compassion for the weak, helpless, and the foreigner has not either.

The Porosity of Borders, Myth of the Country, and International Student Ministry

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia)

Photograph Kronvalda Park, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Countries. States. Nations. The myth of borders. The conflation of cartography with reality. The assumption of fixed geography separating distinct genetics, cultures, practices, languages, thought-patterns, worldviews.

These folk ballads of uniqueness are what undergird much nationalism, nativism, anti-immigration policies. But how firm are these foundations?

  • first, as political entities, nations are particularly fragile. Any flip through the history books tells us that much;
  • whether co-cumbent with politics or not, the lines that delineate the state too are morphous and its edges, even in times of political stability, fairly vague.
  • thirdly, with international or cross-border trade inevitably comes the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and even cultures. And in this day and age of the internet,
  • And what of the practice of endogamy, enforced by political powers in various places in history? What if no person was truly local?

I was telling a Latvian the names of two guys I knew – Martins and Miroslavs. “Miroslavs” is not Latvian, he’d sniffed, that is a Russian name with an “s” stuck at the end to make it seem Latvian. But poor Miroslavs had been born and brought up in Latvia and called it his home, knowing no other. Would he be welcomed as a local if he’d merely changed his name?

What can Americans mean by being against migrants when most of them (other than American Indians) only arrived on that continent a few generations ago? The same question can be asked of Australians (other than the Aboriginal people), and of the citizens of many countries clamouring for nativism. In fact, if we backed up far enough in anyone’s family, we’d find that they weren’t always living in the same geographical area, and even if by some small chance they were, that little patch of land would not always have been within political boundaries of the same homogeneity.

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

These mittens say they have been “lovingly hand-knit by Latvanian grandmothers”, scoring high on fuzzy authenticity. But what if I told you though the experienced hands that manufactured these were local, the mitten patterns were designed by a Japanese lady living in England, based on Latvian and Scandinavian patterns? Would that make them less authentically Latvian? If you wanted to “buy Latvian”, would these make the cut?

Photograph poster for the performance of Reinis Zariņš, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

You say “čaikovskis”, I say “Tchaikovsky”. And what about “classical music”? One cannot say it is authentically Latvian, though neither can one identify it as the music of Austria or Germany or Italy.

And what of imported authenticity? That is, authenticity that isn’t locally traditional (if that can ever be defined) but is part of an internationally recognised conceptual package?

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

The third wave, specialist coffee movement is a good example. in most countries, it can be in no way authentic in relation to its products: coffee beans being commercially grown in only a few countries. Yet all across the world, these places sell authenticity – back-to-basics, grassroots, homemade, vintage, unprocessed comfort.

Whne came upon Miit Coffee (facebook, Lāčplēša iela 10), it seemed terribly familiar. The coffee counter (with its uncommon Opera coffee machine), the bicycles hung precariously on grey walls, the plaid shirt and beard and thick-rimmed glasses combo, the denim aprons with their assymetrical leather straps, the vegetarian/vegan food menu, the brewing options (espresso, in milk, Chemex, V60, Aeropress), the coffee beans identified by their varietal and place of origin. (The beans were bought from Andrito Coffee Roasting which was founded by former Latvian Barista Champion Andris Petkēvičs. The fact that there was even a barista championship of course indicated the pervasity of this non-Latvian culture.)

Photograph Miit Coffee, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

L the Latvian was amused. E the Singaporean was delighted at the prospect of “normality”. I, not having eaten anything since that bowl of soup a few posts ago, was just plain ravenous. That plate of vegan food was mighty fine as was the coffee, but hey I could be biased.

Now how about international student ministry or international ministry within a church?

To the Galatians, Paul wrote:

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

  • There is an equality amongst Christians that is more than political-correctness. It is an equality because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and all have been saved by the death of his Son.
  • Why is there a tendency then, especially in U.K. churches, to separate the foreigners from the locals if they can all speak the same language? And how would you define someone as foreign or local – by citizenship? By skin colour? If so, would you direct a black American to “the international group”?
  • If it is because of different practices that they are split, then doesn’t God’s word advise that these are all opportunities to show love to each other?
  • How would this church tendency entrench prevailing attitudes of people seeing another with a different accent or skin colour as the Other, the altern?
  • And, in any case, how would this cohere with what has been discussed above?

(About a month ago. a curate from London was a visiting speaker in Singapore. While we were having tea, he pointed to the thick toast we were sharing and asked,”Where did you get bread from? Is it from the Brits?” This was as if I’d gone to London and asked if they’d gotten their tea from the Chinese or Indians. It was probably mere small chat, but it hurt because the mere assumption of alien-ness reinforced the gulf between us, when we should have been brother and sister. I probably didn’t help much, being sarcastic in my reply and mentioning “colonial masters”.)

Photograph breakfast at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph dinner at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px That night, we were hosted by L’s grandparents. Her grandmother prepared a feast for us, then she and her husband retreated to the kitchen. No, no, they wouldn’t want to eat with us – they didn’t understand English, so they would eat, standing up, by the cooker. Much as I appreciated her embarrassment, this was also one of the few times in my life that I’d been starkly reminded that I am first and foremost an Outsider, a Stranger, a Foreigner, an Alien.

Photograph Latvian grandmother's flower arrangement by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

CityNightLine CNL 472 Sleeper Train from Amsterdam to København (Copenhagen)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland ->Amsterdam ->

Photograph piano at the Amsterdam Centraal Train Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
A guy with his hair in a man-bun was on the free piano, masterfully entertaining passengers waiting for their train at the Amsterdam Centraal Station. He was, of course, being recorded from all angles. I watched (and captured) the spectacle for a while before stocking up on food for the CityNightLine CNL 472 sleeper train from Amsterdam to København (Copenhagen).

Photograph Smullers vending machine, Amsterdam Centraal Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
The Dutch love their fast food automatieks (vending machines), the perennial discussion amongst fans is whether FEBO or Smullers rules the day (and more likely, night), with a comparison of their products being couched in such terms as a battle of croquettes.

Photograph tracks, Amsterdam Centraal Station by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
Down by the tracks, none of the screens listed either the train number nor the correct destination. I was rescued by a kind white-haired man and his Girl-With-A-Dragon-Tattoo deadringer companion. Neither spoke English so there was alot of emphatic gesturing. Turns out the screen listed where the train was coming from (Praha) rather its destination.

Photograph CNL 472 from Basel to Copenhagen by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Safely on board and having shared a bit of banter with two Brit boys next door, got myself ensconced in the top bunk of a 6-bed compartment before we stopped at Emmerich, Germany. The German border police were a fierce lot and hauled a man out of the carriage with his luggage.
Photograph border check at Emmerich by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph CNL472 from Basel to Copenhagen by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px
In the morning, I had acquired two compartment-mates, and the passing buildings assured us we were in Denmark. We were an international bunch: one man was a German working in Denmark, and the other, a Dane working in America. The German, even though living in Europe, felt the xenophobia quite keenly. He pointed out a poster of a representative of the Danish People’s Party and spoke of how even Danes with foreign spouses (that is, anyone who wasn’t a Dane, even if they were within the EU – English, French etc) were falling foul of tightening immigration policies.
Photograph compartment mate by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

This was the last CNL 472 service, someone along the corridor said.

All around Europe, the lights are going off on inter-city sleeper trains, and the borders are closing against outsiders.