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Temporary, discriminatory and an admission of failure

datePosted on 12:16, October 30th, 2014 by Pablo

The PM says that the legislation his government proposes to pass under urgency allowing for the confiscation of passports of NZ citizens in order to combat the threat of returning foreign fighters will be “tightly focused” on those traveling to the Middle East in order to join jihadist groups. That phrase “tightly focused” is code for “Muslim Internationalists” as opposed to, say, Christian or non-religious fighters joining in foreign conflicts in the Middle East or elsewhere.  So if Kiwis of Croatian descent were to return to their homeland to fight Serbs they would be free to do so and then return without risk of having their passports confiscated. The same goes for Christian Nigerians who wish to return home to fight Boko Haram as members of community self-defence organisations.  And of course Jewish Kiwis already do so by traveling to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

To say the least, this law is by its nature discriminatory and temporary unless the government proposes to make it illegal for anyone to go and fight for any cause anywhere. And that clearly is not what it has in mind.

More tellingly, passing such “tightly focused” legislation under urgency is an admission of failure.

On the one hand, it tacitly is telling us that criminal law, including all of the anti-terrorist legislation passed in the last ten years, is inadequate to deal with this particular type of suspected criminal enterprise (or better said, intended criminal enterprise). On the other hand it implicitly recognises that the combined resources of the GCSB, SIS, Immigration, Customs, NZDF, Police and other security agencies, as well as those of NZ’s main security partners, are unable to monitor the activities of the dozen or so Kiwis who may have jihadist pretensions, this despite the fact that New Zealand is an isolated and relatively small archipelago with no land borders and limited access or egress by air or sea, with a very small Muslim community from which potential jihadists are drawn.

Reading between the lines of the PM’s statement, it seems that the extension of antiterrorism laws, powers of search, surveillance, seizure and domestic intelligence collection over the last decade, much less the existence of a vast array of criminal law statutes as currently exit on the books, have had no impact on the ability of the NZ security community to detect, deter and/or monitor a small group of  young men interested in fighting abroad. Hence the need for more “tightly focused” laws that if nothing else violate the presumption of innocence and freedom of movement that presumably are basic rights in liberal democracies.

That makes me wonder two things: what good do the expanded security powers awarded the state during the last decade serve if they cannot fulfil the basic functions of detection, deterrence and monitoring? And what does that say about the competence of the agencies whose powers have been expanded given New Zealand’s geopolitical location?

The answers are simple: none and a lot.

I did an interview on TV 3′s Firstline show regarding the security concerns raised by the presence of two passengers with stolen passports on the plane. I also discuss the fact that China Southern Airways, which signed an exclusive sweetheart visa liberalization deal for its premium frequent flyers with the National government, was the issuer of the tickets purchased by the passport fraudsters as well as two others now under investigation. The lapses in security vetting happened at several levels and raise questions about air traffic security in Malaysia as well as with regard to China Southern.

Readers may recall an earlier link to an essay I wrote about the sale and bartering of so-called tokens of sovereignty, of which passports are just one (the earlier linked essay focused on flags of convenience in the shipping industry).

Monitoring Syrians and Supplicants.

datePosted on 12:14, February 14th, 2014 by Pablo

The subject of spying is back in the news this week, but the coverage has been inadequate. Allow me to clarify some issues, first with regard to those who want to join the Syrian conflict and second with regard to politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with Kim Dotcom.

Contrary to the thrust of the coverage, not all those seeking to join the Syrian conflict are Syrian or descendants of Syrians. The Syrian War is a civil war between Shiia and Sunnis, where the minority Alawite-backed Assad regime is fighting to maintain its grip over a majority Sunni population (Alawites are a sub-sect of Shiia Islam). For a variety of affective and strategic reasons Iran (a very large Shiia dominant country) supports the Assad regime while Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Gulf oligarchies back the armed opposition. This opposition is divided into what can be loosely called secular moderates (such as those grouped in the Free Syrian Army) and Islamicists (such as those in the al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The latter have come to dominate the military side of the opposition due to their superior combat skills and determination. Their ranks include Sunni internationalists from all over the world (including New Zealand) who see joining the struggle as a religious imperative. Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Britons, Australians and French nationals are among those fighting in Islamicist ranks. That has led to serious clashes with the moderate secularists (who do not have as many internationalists in their ranks, although there are some), to the point that the fighting between the armed opposition factions has allowed the Assad regime to re-gain the upper hand in the overall struggle after being near collapse just six months ago.

Where the armed opposition is winning, it is the Islamicists who are doing so.

In the last nine months the Prime Minister has made repeated reference to would-be New Zealand jihadis joining the fight in Syria. Some are already there and others have been barred from going. They may or may not be Syrian in origin, but his use of the “Syrian trump card” is a naked political ploy designed to use fear-mongering as a justification for extension of domestic espionage and, perhaps, as a way of pre-emptively steeling public opinion against the negative consequences of the inevitable revelations from Edward Snowden about New Zealand’s foreign espionage role within the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence collection network. The trouble with the PM’s ploy is that the proclaimed threat does not match the facts.

According to the government ten New Zealand passports have been revoked since 2005 and a handful of Kiwis are in Syria fighting. The PM makes it sound as if all these have associations with extremist Islam. Perhaps they do, but the Syrian conflict only heated up as of early 2012, so the Syrian card does not explain why passports were cancelled prior to that. Moreover, the PM says that passports were cancelled in order to prevent “radicalized” Kiwis from returning and making trouble at home. That begs the question as to what the frustrated wanna-be jihadis are going to do now that their plans are thwarted and they are forced to remain in the country under heavy scrutiny.

A Syrian community spokesman has said that two brothers had their passports revoked after their parents informed authorities of their plans to travel back home to join the fight. He also accused the PM and his government of “racial discrimination.” The latter claim is ridiculous and shows a gross misunderstanding of how democratic governance works. John Key did not personally order the revocation of any passports nor does he have the power to rescind the cancellation order. New Zealand authorities did not cancel the brother’s passports because they were Syrian but because of their purported intentions. They did not target the entire Syrian community for who they are.

In fact, under current legislation the government is well within its rights to revoke passports on the grounds that the individuals involved intend to become or are part of a criminal enterprise, of which terrorism is one. Since the Islamicists fighting in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the New Zealand government, any intent to join them could be construed as an attempt to engage in criminal activity. One might argue that the definition of terrorism is too broad (and I believe that it is), but as things stand the government’s concern about returning, combat experienced jihadis is a legitimate motive for canceling passports.

I shall leave aside the fact that the chances of survival of those joining the Syrian conflict is quite low* and they are being monitored in any event, so mitigating the potential threat posed by returning jihadis is not as formidable as Mr. Key implies. There are technical means of tracking the location of passports, and the individuals who are in Syria or want to go there have been identified already via domestic intelligence gathering. In fact, allowing suspects to travel while being secretly monitored is a standard intelligence collection method, so one can reasonably assume that the handful of Kiwi internationalists in Syria as well as their as of yet to travel brethren are the focus of both human and signals intelligence collection efforts by local espionage agencies in conjunction with foreign counterparts.

However, Mr. Key’s repeated public use of the Syrian card certainly has alerted any would-be extremists in the New Zealand Muslim community that they have been infiltrated by the Police and SIS and that there are informants in their midst. In fact, the New Zealand Muslim community is a bit of a sieve since 9/11 because personal, sectarian and financial vendettas as well as legitimate concerns about ideological extremism have seen the accusation of “terrorist” thrown around quite freely within it. This has been well known inside security circles (who have to separate bogus from legitimate accusations of terrorist sympathies), but the PM’s public disclosure has given potential jihadis a clear signal to exercise increased caution and diligence when planning future violence (should there be any).

The most important issue, however, is the selective application of the passport revocation authority. If would-be Islamic internationalists have not been convicted of crimes in New Zealand, and barring clear evidence that they intend to engage in crime abroad, then they should be allowed free passage to travel. If they engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity during a foreign conflict (be it in Syria or elsewhere), they can be charged upon their return, or even detained on the suspicion of complicity in said crimes. This is not a far-fetched speculation because both the Assad regime and its armed opposition have committed a raft of atrocities that fall under both definitions of illegal war-time behavior.

This applies equally to those who may choose to join non-Islamicist groups in other foreign conflicts (for example, by joining Christian militias in the Central African Republic), so specifically targeting those intending to go to Syria to fight is, in fact, selective if not discriminatory application of the relevant law. As far as following the Australian example and making it illegal to join a foreign conflict under penalty of imprisonment or revocation of citizenship, one can only hope not.

The simple fact is that would-be jihadis and other internationalists should be free to join any foreign conflict. They assume the risk of doing so and understand that they give up the diplomatic protections usually reserved for citizens traveling abroad. Should they be deemed a potential threat upon their return (in the event that they do), then it is the responsibility of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mitigate that threat within the rule of law. As I have alluded to above, that is not particularly hard to do in the New Zealand context.

As for politicians meeting with Dotcom, the issue is far more simple than sinister. Dotcom is a NZ permanent resident who is a fugitive from US justice still under extradition warrant (which is being argued in court). The authorities may well consider him a flight risk because he certainly has the means to do so. They may believe that he is continuing his criminal associations or practices while his court case is being heard (I shall refrain from making bad jokes about those who have flocked to his side during the GCSB Bill debates, or about the politicians who have knocked on his door). Given his penchant for partying and those he associates with when doing so, they may want to catch him in possession of illegal drugs.

Thus the Police would have legitimate reason to run ongoing surveillance operations on him, and can do so legally with or without the help of the SIS and now, thanks to the passage of the GCSB Bill, the GCSB. In doing so, they would monitor and record the comings and goings of visitors to his mansion, with that information passed up the chain of command.

That is why Mr Key’s version of how he came to know about Mr. Peters’ treks to the Coatesville property is odd. He claims that he got his information about Dotcom’s political visitors from Cameron Slater working with or independently from a Herald gossip columnist. That is troubling.

The Right Honorable John Key is the Minister of Intelligence and Security, so presumably he is aware of the status of security operations and the Dotcom case in particular given its history. But he claims that he received domestic espionage information about Dotcoms’s visitors from a right-wing, admittedly partisan “attack” blogger, rather than from the security agencies for which he is responsible and who have a legal right to monitor Mr. Dotcom. That is a sign of incompetence or willful ignorance on his part.

I have shares in a Bolivian gold mine I am willing to sell at a very affordable price to readers who believe a sociopath was the first source of the Dotcom visit data provided to the PM.  Perhaps I am wrong and it is simply too much for domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies to pursue the monitoring of Dotcom for a supposed copyright infringement when so many Syrian-focused terrorists abound. But given the amount of resources expended and the reputational stakes involved, it would not be surprising and in fact legal for security agencies to do so.

I would suggest that if people like Winston Peters are concerned about being spied on when visiting Mr. Dotcom, then they should look at their own roles in allowing that to happen. Since 9/11 the legal powers and practical reach of the domestic espionage apparatus have been increased incrementally yet extensively under both Labour and National governments. Other than a relatively small number of Left activists and the Green Party (as well as ACT while Rodney Hide was still around to lead it), neither the majority public or the majority of political parties did anything to oppose this extension.

In fact, although Labour party figures and Winston Peters joined Kim Dotcom on the stage at various anti-GCSB Bill protests last year, and the bow-tied buffoon with a pompadour posing as a political party objected to having his personal communications accessed during the course of an investigation into leaks of confidential government information, Labour is responsible for the majority of the extensions and Dunne and Peters supported all of them. National has merely deepened the trend towards a surveillance society.

Hence, whatever Labour, NZ First or United Future may say now as a way of partisan point-scoring, they are full accomplices in the erosion of Kiwi privacy rights over the last decade. Any current whinging about violations of their personal and the larger collective privacy should be dismissed as cowardly rank hypocrisy.

In any event, when it comes to intrusions on basic freedoms of association, privacy and travel, not only Syrians living in New Zealand have reason to feel aggrieved.

* This is due to the immutable Buchanan rule of ground warfare: if you are firing your weapon over your head, or firing blindly around corners in the general direction of the enemy, you will not last long once s/he closes in. Should that rule be miraculously violated without consequence, the fifth Buchanan rule of asymmetrical warfare comes into effect: strapping explosives or amulets to your body in the hope of divine intervention is based on a false premise.

Some advice about travel advisories.

datePosted on 09:19, January 5th, 2014 by Pablo

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

On Liminality.

datePosted on 15:05, July 5th, 2012 by Pablo

For some time I have been pondering the issue of liminality. It is a term that appears in cultural studies and all sorts of post-modern rubbish posing as theory, but in this instance it resonates with me and seems to accurately depict a social condition that is increasingly evident in a multi-globalized world. “Liminality” refers to state of intermediacy or even indeterminacy. It is a condition of being caught in betwixt and in between, of being in two or more places at once but not being fully settled in any one of them. It is different from and more than hybridity, which is a combination rather than a condition, although hybridity can lead to liminality in some instances (say, a mixed race person moving between the different class and cultural backgrounds of parents).

In my frame of reference liminality is the condition where a person who has lived for significant periods of time in more than one country finds him/herself saddled with affections and aversions from each, leading to overlapping loyalties, and more importantly, a sense of relativism that destroys any notions of cultural absolutes or ideals. For example, the more the individual lives in different places, the more it seems to me that it is hard to get seriously nationalistic about any one of them. Even such small issues as sports loyalty can be a complicated matter. I, for example, follow Argentina in soccer because I grew up there. I root for Barcelona because it has a genius Argentine forward and a very Argentine style of play, but support Portugal as a national side in Europe because I lived in Lisbon for while and watched several of their players live as part of the experience. I support the ABs in rugby but switch allegiances to the Pumas when the play each other. I support the US in things like baseball and basketball, but then again tend to root for Greece in basketball because I lived in Athens for a while and the Greeks are crazy about b-ball, and cannot help but cheer for any small Latin American country when they play against the US in either sport (and truth be told, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have great baseball traditions and Argentina and Brazil have beaten the US in international basketball competition. Yay for them!).

Although I am not sure that they are sports rather than games, I have taken an interest in and support Singapore in table tennis and badminton because, well, I lived in Singapore for a few years and that is the only thing that they do well when it comes to international “athletic” competition (truth be told the national sport in Singapore is shopping, but they do not award medals for that). When not rooting for Argentina my default options are Chile (where my family lived for several years and where I subsequently conducted field research), Uruguay (where my family vacationed for extended periods during our time in Argentina and where I conducted field research in later years) and Brazil (where I lived episodically in the 1980s).

The sports angle is a minor one. The more serious issue is that as more and more people travel and settle across international borders, the more liminal they become. In many instances this occurs on top of an urban-rural disjuncture, whereby people transplanted from one to the other find themselves (at least initially) alienated and out of synch with the rhythm of life in their new locale. Think of a Laotian peasant or Somali refugee arriving and settling in Auckland. As with most new migrants, particularly those that are involuntarily re-settled, the pull of nostalgia for what was culturally lost very often overwhelms the urge to integrate and accept new values, mores and customs. It is only subsequent native-born generations that feel grounded in the new culture, but even they are often caught in betwixt and in between. One solution, particularly if the native population is hostile to new settlers, is to retreat in parochial defense of the “old” country or way of life. But even that eventually gives way to mixed feelings of loyalty and obligation to the old and the new.

Liminality occurs at the sub-national as well as the international level, both of which have been impacted by the revolution in transportation and telecommunications. There are consequently more and more people living in a liminal condition or state of mind. It therefore seems to me that “liminality” should be included in policy debates about things such as immigration, although to do that correctly we will have to wrestle the term away from the cultural relativists and other intellectual poseurs who think that trafficking in big words is equivalent to practicable and useful social research.

I am no expert on the topic so mention all of this merely as a subjective reflection. It is prompted by the July 4 celebrations in the US and comments by friends back there about how the US is the greatest country on earth etc. Yet most of these folk have never lived outside the States for an extended period of time, so how would they know? From my perspective it certainly has many merits and offers many opportunities, but in the end that is as much due to the its continental size and relative insulation as it is to the particularities of its people, politics and culture. Mind you, I feel certainly loyalty to the US as the country of my birth and whose government I once served, where my children and siblings reside, but that competes with my childhood loyalty to Argentina and current loyalty to NZ (which is where I expect to end my days. That raises an interesting sidebar: how many people actually think about the country or place that they would prefer to die in? I can say one thing for sure. Among other unhappy places, Afghanistan is not on the top of my list, with all due respect to the Afghans that I have known).

Who is to say that Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Bhutan or–the goddess forbid–Australia is not the “greatest” country? How is universal “greatness” as a nation defined? One would have had to have lived in many places and have done many different things in order to make such a distinction (I do not mention Aotearoa simply because we all know that it is Godzone). And if one did in fact live in many places doing many different things, it is more likely that s/he would be at a loss to pick one single place as being above all of the rest in every respect. That is what liminality can do to a person–it makes it impossible to speak about culture or nationality in absolute or definitive terms. I say this even though I am fully aware of the canard that states that “there is no place like home,” whereby expats use the experience of living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to their nation of origin (my parents did this for most of their lives). That may be true in some but not all instances, and I would argue that the more countries one lives in the less able s/he is to make such an assertion.

In any event, I write this as a person born in the US, raised and subsequently lived as an adult in Argentina and other Latin American as well as European and SE Asian countries, who resides permanently in NZ while continuing to travel to Australia, the US and elsewhere for professional and personal reasons. That pretty much defines my liminality, which I am not entirely sure is a bad thing.

The countdown (to the return) begins.

datePosted on 20:34, May 14th, 2011 by Pablo

As an antidote to some of the heavy discussion occasioned by Lew’s recent posts, I figured that I would interject with a mention that two weeks from today my partner and I return to NZ. The definitive return was delayed six months by an offer of a teaching position in Singapore, but that has now finished. All of the marking has been done, and other than a videoconference lecture by me, a brief holiday in Bintan and packing, we are done in Singapore. Although it has not always been the most pleasant experience, it has been interesting in many ways and we have learned from our stay. I expect that either individually or together we will write at least one scholarly essay about the place, simply because analyses of things like the gross exploitation of foreign low-skilled labor and domestic workers needs to be more widely exposed. We also have in a mind a comparative project using Singapore and Cuba as case studies–two one party authoritarian island states whose regimes were born of traumatic circumstances that were originally led by charismatic leaders, now in a slow process of political liberalisation in which the original leadership cadres are being replaced by a third generation of less battle-hardened and dogmatic cadres, and in which the attitudes of the younger generation of citizens are not shaped by the origins of the regimes in question.

There is more to the comparison–the state-centric nature of the economies is a structural likeness that defies the clear differences in macro-economic approaches–so it will be interesting to delve into the subject in greater analytic depth. I also have an interest in studying the role of the third generation Singaporean Armed Forces in the process of regime liberalisation, as its role as regime defender is being challenged from within and without the SAF by a new generation of “professional” officers more interested in meritocratic and technocratic advancement than cultivating political ties to the PAP, and who find echo in young professional in the civilian bureaucracy who are not as interested in joining the PAP patronage networks that underpin the supposedly “meritocratic” criteria for promotion to senior ranks.

I think I have a fair grasp on these subjects. My post on the Singaporean elections, along with the version on Scoop, got a lot of play in Singapore, most of it favourable. This a good sign because (especially Chinese) Singaporeans have a good deal of anti-foreign sentiment and reject being told, in spite of what economic growth and government propaganda lead them to believe, about the flaws in their system of governance and culture (for example, the endemic racism against Malays, Indians, Filipinos and Tamils by the dominant group that is codified in not-to-subtle legal jargon, as well as the simmering resentment of Anglo-Saxons in spite of the fact that the country can not operate successfully without them). The fact that I was not pilloried in the coverage of my essay indicates that, written in the appropriate manner, some of what I/we propose to research could provide a contribution to debates within Singapore about the future of the country. We shall see.

In the meantime we are looking forward to wearing sweaters and jeans, enjoying cool weather, breathing clean air and resuming the existence on the western slopes of the Waitakeres from whence we came. That, and contributing in our own ways to political and social debates in the land of the long white cloud.

NB: In light of Phil’s remark I have amended the title less readers think that I have developed some pop idol fixation.

Back into the Bush.

datePosted on 12:12, November 7th, 2010 by Pablo

It took me a while but I finally have moved back into my home in the Waitakeres and established an Internet connection. The whole experience has been out-of-body: transported from an SE Asian unnaturally manicured urban landscape into the sub-tropical wilderness overlooking a black sand beach. In the time I have been away the bush has reclaimed its place in the surrounds of the house so there is much work to be done in re-establishing a clear space before winter shadows set in. The silence and darkness at night, save the calls of the moorporks and a porch light, is simply incredible after 3 years of traffic noise and human chatter. I can now jog on a beach rather than on cement or a treadmill (which means that I will actually be motivated to do so). I can (semi-) safely ride a bike and swim in unpollluted waters. Rather than entirely store-bought produce I am now once again gathering chicken and duck eggs and using the garden for veggies (my tenant kindly left the garden in good shape). A neighbor moved his cow and her calf into my upper paddock, reminding me of the quality fertiliser production that would ensue from the natural lawn-mowing and weed control efforts of the friendly bovines. The simple acts of walking up and down stairs, chopping wood, shoveling, sawing, pushing barrows etc. is a marked contrast to the sedentary elevator and escalator-driven existance that cushions the Little Red Dot from the natural world. In fact, that was one thing that was startling about the SG experience–people no longer seem to know how to cope with nature, be it small animals or big rainstorms. Everything is delegated to the state for management and control, which is pretty much the antithesis of what is going on out in the West Auckland hills.

People are different too. From the crassly materialistic, commodity fetichist, money and vanity-obsessed culture in which I have lived for the past few years I am now in a place where people wear track clothes and gumboots in malls. The lack of pretense is refreshing, but perhaps that take on things has less to do with “proper” notions of civility and more to do with my working class orientation.

Be that as it may, such dress in public spaces would invite open derision and possible police intervention in SG, given that people dress to the nines before embarking on the national sport of shopping and shoddy clothing is associated with foreign workers who are considered to be inferior and criminally-minded by many of the local majority (I should note that this can happen in certain elite shopping districts in the US as well). The Asian fixation on cosmetic beauty and displays of wealth has been replaced in West Auckland by something more earthy, even frumpy or bogan (although this may simply be a Westie thing–I presume that if I lived in Mission Bay or Remuera there would be a bit of “sniffy” attitude there as well). Out in the supercity West, there seems to be much less of a concern about status and “keeping up with the Jones,” although I am reminded that equality and politeness goes out the door as soon as some people get into vehicles (this is especially true for middle aged Pakeha males driving panel vans). Children actually play, and with their parents to boot (with no maids in sight to do the housework and child-raising).

Then there is the racial mingling, which in West Auckland involves all persuasions consentually and freely associating but which in the Little Red Dot is either middle aged white males consorting with young Asian females or third generation Sino-Indian mixes (much to the disapproval of parents on both sides). Hence, homicidal drivers notwithstanding,  it has been delight to return to a tolerant and diverse place even if I am re-discovering all the aches that come with living in a semi-rural environment. But that is exactly why I prefer to live here rather than there–this existance is grounded and real. 

I have been fortunate in having word of my return leak to the media, which has resulted in a few interviews on topics of contemporary import (of which I will post more later). One of the interviews is here:

So long as that contributes to public debate and gainful employment in some capacity down the road, the more the better. I also may have some real business leads in the making, so fingers crossed that they materialise.

Anyway, this is just a quick brief on my return to Aotearoa. Many people may seek to leave NZ for greater economic opportunity, but as far as I am concerned this is the best place to call home. Once my partner joins me, it will be, once again.

Most important event of the millennium so far

datePosted on 11:10, September 30th, 2010 by Lew

Astronomers have apparently discovered — for the first time — a planet which is both the correct size and the correct distance from its star to support life. And it’s only (all intended irony) 20 light years away!

Gliese 581g is the first world discovered beyond Earth that’s the right size and location for life.
“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.

Ever-pessimistic, I await the inevitable debunking of this epochal development. But I’m not as bad as some people on twitter, who believe that we’ll just give up on the planet we currently have as we redouble efforts to reach the new one. Sheesh.

Update 20101014: Another group of astronomers, searching for the same planet, have been unable to find any evidence that the planet even exists. Oh well.

L

Running towards disaster.

datePosted on 14:19, September 24th, 2010 by Pablo

News that preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games are in disarray, and that Indian Games officials deliberately misled NZ and other foreign officials about the state of play with regard to the preparations, should give those responsible for sending the NZ team serious cause for concern. It fact, they should seriously reconsider whether sending a team is worth the risks. Several foreign athletes have already declined to participate due to their concerns about security. Other countries have delayed sending their teams and some are considering withdrawing entirely. NZ needs to do the same. No amount of temporary athletic glory–and the bureaucratic empire-building that rides on the back of athletic accomplishment–should overcome a reasoned and rational appraisal of the risks involved in sending Kiwis into a potentially dangerous situation. The hard fact is that unlike the football and rugby World Cups, where local and international sanctioning organisations work hand-in-hand to ensure that high standards are maintained across the board, this edition of the Commonwealth Games is singular in its lack of coordination and oversight. The results of that misadventure are now plain to see, and yet NZ and other countries have wavered about whether to send their delegations less they risk causing offense to the hosts that lied to them.

Let ‘s take just two dimensions of risk: health and security. Pictures of the atrocious conditions of the athlete’s village have now surfaced, including leaking and broken toilets, seriously dirty washrooms and bedrooms, bedding that has dog prints and human excrement on them, exposed wiring, broken windows, faulty lighting, garbage strewn walkways, staircases and balconies with defective railings–the range of construction and finishing problems runs the gamut. A pedestrian bridge connecting a parking lot to a stadium collapsed, which raises questions about sub par construction standards, possible corruption in the awarding of contracts, inept or negligent construction oversight or some unhappy combination of the above. Given the revelations that Games officials deliberately misled foreign delegations about the status of the construction project, it is entirely reasonable to ask whether this lack of ethics was pervasive throughout the build up to the Games, and what that means in terms of the integrity of the venues.

Let us take the concern further. If this is the state of the physical construction required to host the games, what will be the condition of the kitchens in which athlete’s food is prepared, the personal hygiene standards of those preparing such food, and the cleanliness standards of the public restrooms, food vending outlets and other public spaces in which athletes will find themselves? Will NZ be securing its own dedicated cooking and abolution spaces and if not, how does it propose to guarantee that its athletes will be free of the risk of infection, contamination and other human-caused disease (to say nothing of other maladies such as the mosquito-borne dengue fever epidemic currently raging in Delhi and to which the simple of solution of mass fumigation campaigns such as those used in SE Asia is apparently unheard of or not implemented)?

Then there is the issue of security. It turns out that rival Indian security agencies are engaged in turf battles that have impeded intelligence sharing and real-time communications. Although the Indian Army can be considered competent and focused on deterring potential threats, local police forces are less professional in approach and susceptible  to corruption, infiltration by extremists and simple incompetence. Given that Pakistani-based militants have already issued direct threats against the Games and conflict in Kashmir has escalated in recent weeks, the scene is set for a major terrorist attack on the Games, be it against a foreign delegation, a specific event or the host arenas themselves. The NZ government is unable to give assurances that something nasty will not happen because the Indian government, for all its blowhard security rhetoric, cannot offer absolute guarantees that the Games will be safe (again, owing to distrust and disunity between national, state and local security agencies). In fact, NZ already has travel advisories in place for India irrespective of the Games, so if anything those need to be updated in light of the realities on the ground there.

The bottom line is the Delhi Games are not only in trouble but are trouble in the making. It therefore behooves the National government, to say nothing of MFAT and the NZSIS/NAB etc., to take the lead in determining whether it is worth risking NZ lives by sending them to a second-tier athletic competition in which their health and safety cannot be guaranteed. After all, it was the government that intervened to tell NZ cricket that playing matches in Zimbabwe was not advisable because of the nature of the regime rather than any specific threat to the cricketers themselves. In this case the threats are multiple and real even if the host government is friendly. Should not the NZ government be as concerned in this instance as it ostensibly was with the cancelled cricket tour?

It may be diplomatically uncomfortable, and personally disappointing for the athletes involved, for the government to pull the plug on NZ participation in the Games, but that is a decision that should not be left to those who were duped by the Indian con in the first place and one which should place more value on the long term welfare of its athletes than on the immediate potential for medals that they may accrue.

**UPDATE** No sooner had I posted this than cyclist Greg Henderson announced he was withdrawing from the games citing–surprise, surprise–health and security concerns (can you imagine riding in a cycle road race in New Delhi, where the safety and security of the racers over distances of more than 100 kilometers is entrusted to local volunteers and security officials responsible for keeping traffic off of the course?). That a cyclist has to be the first to admit the obvious, even if he is doing so out of concern for his long-term professional career rather than that of his fellow athletes, is indicative of the lack of wider perspective exhibited by NZ’s athletic overseers. Which is why the government needs to get involved.

**UPDATE 2** The army of cleaners pressed into service at the last minute by the Games organisers includes 7 and 8 year old girls. I wonder what their wages and terms of employment are? Also, various Indian officials have claimed that the complaints are evidence of Anglo-Saxon racism and enduring colonial attitudes. To which I say: Good job guys. Nothing like addressing the root problem full on.

On the road again, this time to the Great Satan.

datePosted on 15:49, August 9th, 2010 by Pablo

It has been a busy year for travel. I was in OZ in January (pleasure), NZ in Feb-March (business and pleasure), Greece in April-May (business and pleasure), OZ again in June (pleasure) and am now headed to the US for five weeks (business and pleasure). My daughter is getting married (to a Republican!) and I have work to do on the Florida house, plus will vote in the state Democratic primary (where everything from dogcatcher to Senator is in play) and scout out opportunities for the political risk/market intelligence/strategic analysis consulting firm I have just re-started (I used to do this sort of consulting before moving to NZ, then switched into a media expert commentary focus, but now need to get back into the bigger game because I have been locked out of NZ and OZ academia as a result of well-known events). I am going to try and base the consultancy in SG and NZ with a Australasian-Latin American focus given my past experience and networks in the latter region. If things go to plan it will be the first dedicated political risk/market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy based in and focused on NZ’s relations with the Pacific Rim.  However, the US offers more opportunity for a range of work along the lines in which I have some expertise, so I am going to use the trip to visit with old colleagues and work on any networking opportunities that may arise. 

Depending on how things go I will likely do some more traveling before the end of the year. My partner would prefer that I not take assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which I find understandable. So I suggested to her that I will instead focus on Yemen and Somalia as possible work sites. You can imagine her reaction. All joking aside, there are plenty of places in which my background and experience could be of help to potential clients (both public and private), so I will try to use the US trip as a springboard to work that will allow me to return to NZ and at worst divide my time between there and SG (my partner still has the full time university job in SG and there is no point in her giving it up until such a time as there are academic openings for her back in NZ or OZ).

Put another way: I may no longer be able to work in academia, but that does not mean that a lifetime accumulation of research and analytic skills need go to waste. Plus, I am not good at being idle or a “kept” man. Hence I need to find intellectually stimulating work that will allow me to contribute to society, with my personal ethics and values being the guide as to what sort of work I accept or reject. The US trip is the first step towards doing so.

All of which is to say that I may be a bit quiet for the next week or so. I will try to post about events in the US as I see them in the build up to the mid-term elections in November. Things have gotten very strained in terms of political debate in that country but it is hard to judge what really is the public mood without living there. The wedding and related visits with friends and family should provide a good cross-section and sounding board on how people feel about Obama, the economy, foreign affairs in general and the wars in particular, and contemporary social issues often overlooked in the foreign press or export news industry.  With any luck that will provide material for posts. Otherwise I shall work on my open water swimming, which has been neglected since I moved to SG because, to put it mildly, the locals waters are not exactly the cleanest on earth. Since the Florida place is 50 meters from the beach and the water there has not been affected by the Gulf oil spill (it is on the Atlantic side), it will be a nice opportunity to regain some of my surf swimming skills with a view towards using them in NZ once I finally make it back there.

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