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The View From Asia

Pulling in different directions

Concern over growing divides within societies came to the fore in commentaries this week. Here are excerpts from two pieces published by papers in the Asia News Network, on the political rift in Hong Kong and the communal rift in India.

Factions threaten Hong Kong's future

Ho Lok-sang

China Daily

Hong Kong boasts fine legal institutions, superb infrastructure and efficient government.

Hong Kong is also uniquely and favourably located. It has a long history as an international trading post and as a gateway to China.

Under the "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong enjoys the best of both worlds.

It is at the same time part of China, which for decades has been the fastest-growing economy

in the world, and is also part of the world that practises common law, which is a requirement for a global financial centre.

However, all this is not enough to secure Hong Kong's long-term future, which must be grounded on strong social cohesion and the stamina of its people.

Consider this excerpt from the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2015 Global Liveability Ranking report: "North American cities have largely seen declines. Part of this stems from unrest related to a number of high-profile deaths of black people in police custody, but there have also been escalations in crime rates in some locations, coupled with a number of incidents of religious or politically motivated attacks… Hong Kong…has notably fallen in the ranking owing to mass protests and clashes with the police in the past year."

Three Canadian cities are among the top five in livability (on a list of 140): Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.

The list is topped by the city of Melbourne in Australia.

These results give rise to the question of why the United States,

a common law country like Canada and Australia and also a kind of "spin-off" from the British Empire, posts such a dismal performance.

My hypothesis is that the difference in culture makes all the difference.

My worry is that an adversarial and polarising culture that is emerging rapidly in Hong Kong will take the city on the road to decline, like the US.

The hallmark of this adversarial and polarising culture is a focus on factional interests, which could be any special interest group that may be defined along political lines, commercial or business lines, ethnic or religious lines, and so on.

Each faction just wants to achieve its goals, ignoring the public interest.

There is no regard for the interests of others.

Each faction simply will not put itself in the shoes of others.

A 2010 paper, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence Of Political Misperceptions, by US academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that when challenged with facts debunking various points of view, the more partisan subjects would become even more sure of their original beliefs.

When people are like this, several things happen.

First, they fight with one another, wasting precious energy that otherwise could be put to better use.

Second, because each side wants to defend its position rather than seek the best solution, the best solution would be that much more difficult to discover.

Third, violence and disruptions to day-to-day activities would become more likely.

Economic activities could be disrupted.

Business activities would be adversely affected.

Income and jobs would be lost.

Fourth, investors and talents would avoid the city.

When this happens, decline would accelerate, and a vicious circle once formed would be very difficult to reverse.


Darkness at noon?

Amulya Ganguli

The Statesman

Less than three weeks after the murderous assault on a Muslim family by a saffron mob in the Dadri area in Uttar Pradesh for allegedly eating beef, another Muslim young man was killed on the suspicion of smuggling cows in Himachal Pradesh.

There is little doubt that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindutva lobby have stirred a hornet's nest by raking up the issue of eating beef.

It all began with the Maharashtra government's ban on beef, which was quickly followed by Haryana, for no BJP chief minister wanted to be left behind in the display of fervour for the holy cow.

Then, the Union Minister of State for Culture (Mahesh Sharma) stoked the row by calling for a ban on all forms of meat during Hindu and Jain festivals. It is unclear whether these saffron stalwarts were aware of the impact of their impromptu words and deeds on their avid followers.

But the latter evidently saw the prohibitions on the consumption of animal flesh as a licence to kill those guilty of violation.

Since Muslims have always been seen as the offenders in the matter of defying the vegetarianism of the upper-caste Hindus of North and South India, they are now being targeted by the vigilante groups.

It appears that the BJP has lately woken up to the danger unleashed by its proactive anti-beef lobby.

The call for tolerance by President Pranab Mukherjee is perhaps one reason.

It was lauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi , who also expressed sadness at the hooliganism of the Shiv Sena when they blackened the face of a sponsor of a book launch by a former Pakistan foreign minister.

Since then, the Sena has given the Prime Minister further cause for sadness by attacking the office of the Board of Control for Cricket in India to register their protest against a possible India-Pakistan series.

While the BJP's chief minister in Maharashtra has maintained a stoic silence, Mr Modi is believed to have asked the BJP president, Mr Amit Shah, to tick off the more vocal among the saffron loudmouths.The only good thing to have come out of this sorry episode is Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu's comment that Muslims can eat anything they want.

What is clear is that the BJP is gradually recognising the realities of a multicultural country where the people have different eating habits.

If it had taken note of these facts earlier, the atmosphere would have been far less tense.

However, it is not only against beef-eaters that the wrath of the Hindutva Gestapo has been directed.

The systematic killing of rationalists - author Narendra Dabholkar, Professor M.M. Kalburgi, politician Govind Pansare - has shown that the saffron militants interpret the BJP's assumption of power as the time to eliminate its enemies.

It is the atmosphere of intolerance demonstrated by the rampages of the Hindu right which has made a number of writers return their Sahitya Akademi awards and also other prizes, such as the Padma honours, won by them.

Initially, the BJP was taken aback by this unusual form of protest.

More used to dealing with political brouhaha, it was at a loss as to how to deal with this silent revolt against the regime. What is more, the dissent of authors, essayists, poets and others of their kind can be more damaging than political protests because they are seen as being above the madding crowd and do not have any axe to grind.

It is apparently to undertake such an investigation that a couple of policemen in plain clothes visited the house of writer G.N. Devy in Vadodara to ascertain whether he wanted to create any "disaffection" by returning his Sahitya Akademi award.

The episode is reminiscent of the chilling "midnight knock" on the houses of dissenters in totalitarian countries, depicted so effectively in Arthur Koestler's celebrated novel, Darkness At Noon.

What is noticeable through all these events is Mr Modi's reticence.


•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see www.asianewsnet.net

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'Pulling in different directions'. Print Edition | Subscribe