These three seminars represent the recent efforts of the Asia Institute to engage young people in a rigorous and constructive debate on contemporary policy and issues.
Asia Institute Seminar
“International Perspectives on Mental Illness”
January 29, 2013
When talking about mental illness, it’s important to separate whether one talked about patient with brain damages, medically ill, or the one with depression / aggression symptom that is not actually “ill” but the environment create them to be so. Furthermore, it is true that culture in many cases, provided the definition of what is “normal” and “abnormal” even when upon reflection, common sense deemed these to be the other way around. Perhaps it is even possible to think not only of an individual but of a group as having some kind of “mental illness?
Some research has indicated that suicides attempt can be contagious. Furthermore, some extreme act can also be imitated, such as copy-cat suicides or copy-cat mass killing (e.g. in school environment). These alert us to be careful when thinking of raising awareness on mental illnesses.
Mental illness is the complex intersection of society, culture and the individual. There are some cases of mental illnesses that are clearly linked to deformations of the brain, but in most cases, mental illness involves the interaction of individual issues, contradictions and tensions within society, and paradoxes and savage powers within the culture itself. Often those other parts beyond the individual are invisible to us, and many people would like to just say “he is sick” or “just give him some medicine.” Sandy Hook in the US is the best example of this sort of problem.
In the case of the Sandy Hook shooting, the media quotes had the boy’s mother, father, family and friends saying they are baffled. Adam embodied an illness that reaches through the whole culture. Easy to say that we can’t comprehend what he did. When his father writes says he is “in disbelief at the atrocity” and family friends say ‘We too are asking why” or ‘Like so many of you, we are saddened, but struggling to make sense of what has transpired” they are not being honest.
I spent a few hours looking at popular American TV last night over the internet. As I do not watch TV even in Korea, and certainly do not have ready access to American TV, I could only see small pieces. Combined with what I could find in games (which are increasingly taking over the role that TV once played) I can see a massive increase in violence at every level. The entire culture, I had to conclude, has been brutalized and is increasingly turning to violence as entertainment, as the compelling topic for one’s attention.
A discourse of mental illness largely depends on cultural elements of each society. First, mental illness is treated differently according to how culture/society recognizes it: whether it treats as a serious problem with emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment for it, both in macro/society level and micro/individual level, or society/culture turns a blind eye on it. Second, mental illness is treated differently according to how society as whole and individuals in it are affected by the illness. The causes and the level of acceptance of mental illness vary according to different cultural backgrounds as well.
I do not think the Western medical approach in terms of the treatment for mental illness is totally wrong if medicine could compliment a holistic therapy for mental illness. People and society needs more information and awareness in order to choose for themselves and their family members. Balancing between the medical treatment and more holistic measures ranging from individual to family and society level is never an easy step to take. That how books such as “Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems” by Professor Marinoff came about in attempting to approach problems like mental illness in more philosophical ways as opposed to the conventional/clinical approaches.
We cannot always blame culture, society, social units such as family, social institutions which mainly includes government and law, etc. For example, we cannot blame American society and gun laws in the States for shootings such as Sandy Hook’s case and so on, as it all comes down to individual’s responsibilities at the end of the day. It is true that the causes of mental illness should not be seen as a black-and-white matter between society and individual. For example, in most cases, individuals have no control either on one’s family background, one of the smallest units of society, or on one’s nationality, one of the largest units of society. Therefore, it would be hard to say that such mental illness derives only from individual’s state of mind. However, what we cannot overlook is the fact that human being is the only rational being on the earth, and, to some extent, human being are capable of being trained to know how to recognize the illness and access help accordingly. Of course, this may work or may not work depending on the severity of the illness and so on.
Bum Jin Kim:
I would like an awareness campaign for mental illness. Instead of discussing gun control, the media should raise awareness about mental health issues.
Nobody is ashamed of seeing a doctor for the flu, but people seem ashamed of the idea of seeing a therapist capable of being trained to know how to recognize the illness and access help accordingly. Of course, this may work or may not work depending on the severity of the illness and so on.
Mental illness is sometimes left as some kind of “madness”, also in affluent families in South Asia, many keep it out as something to “ignore” and its not taken seriously. Our current awareness campaigns aren’t strong enough. It doesn’t become a headline until something terrible happens (like the Sandy Hook shooting) and in general, people are also not interested when such campaigns are happening.
In Bangladesh we have only one national mental illness institution and there aren’t enough beds for patients. People try to “solve” it within families and rarely consult doctors. Mental problems usually come from being unsuccessful, physical illness (for long preiod), failure in lives, and poverty. Accepting the existence of mental illness and working towards helping those who are in need are key issues. I think it needs to be addressed like AIDS/HIV campaigns – that is there is no shame of having someone ill in the family.
Asia Institute Seminar
“International Cooperation and Aid”
January 21, 2013
In a sense, international cooperation and aids can be seen as a matching problem. Due to the vast diversity between needs in differing country, it is difficult to create all-encompassing framework/guideline on how aids given from a country to another should be handled. In addition, lack of reference experience in understanding the roots of the needs in different country, caused difficulty in raising awareness, especially in judging the good international collaboration from a bad one. Sometimes marketing became the key to attract funding, which often is misleading. However, it is a dilemma when credibility and efficiency of any particular project is difficult to assess.
So if I came from the United States to Cambodia to help, I can teach people there a bit about how the world works and more complex institutions. Such interaction is positive. But at the same time I can learn from the people I meet. Someone in Cambodia might know how to wash all their dishes with a tiny amount of water. As an ugly American, I have no idea how to do that.
I guess there are two issues: the general question of how international aid, development work, can be effective in general, and the very specific question of what works for which situations. I am afraid I am not so qualified to talk about what works on the ground, although I certainly have a sense of how aid is abused globally and also how sincere efforts can end up being destructive. One key issue that is overlooked is creating a culture that can accept failure. To be able to objectively discuss failure in an organization is an incredibly important more often than not in government, or in companies, admitting that one has failed means people can pin everything on you.
The nature of international collaboration itself suggests that there might not be a perfect balance between the more well-offs and the less. However I don’t think many doubt if such events can make a difference. The question is difference for whom? The visitors or the locals? Another factor is the duration of development projects and how they are organized. Yes, some may use quite a lot of resources, but in some cases that might be more acceptable if there is solid contribution from the projects (e.g. Doctors Without Borders). Long-term projects may also yield more fruitful outcomes than short-term ones because the organizers need to take sustainability into account.
Asia Institute Seminar
“Meaningful Vocation for the Next Asia Youth”
January 14, 2013
There seems to be a tension between what pays and what one would like to pursue. But ideally, this should not be the case. Diversity is perhaps one good path to achieve this. As Asia grew rapidly, this should be the time when this ideal could be more easily achieved. We know there is a lot of talk about growth in Asia and the like. However, from my layman opinion, there seems to be less local-people grabbing the opportunities as supposed to the foreigners coming into the country.
Indonesia, which has 60% entrepreneurship rate, is pursuing employment by big companies, while in other places, entrepreneurship is deemed more important. I believe this has to do with the fact that government is not supporting the citizen basic livelihood, thus making employment in big companies or government jobs desirable, as it is seen to be “more secure”. The inability to rely on governments for “bad time” I think limits the opportunities and growth that the citizens could have.
As for the true nature of employment, well, every country, every local region is different. Nevertheless I think we can see some general trends that are meaningful. First, technology is changing the nature of jobs (both by replacing people, or changing the way they interact with each other, or making it possible to move jobs or things around the world). In addition, relations between groups of people are shifting faster than we can be fully aware of. Our culture is transforming at may levels and those changes are often invisible to us.
The nature of government is a critical part of the equation. I personally tend to value the role of government in the conceptual sense, but what exactly government is and how is it changing is more difficult to assess. Also, housing is at least as important as work. We really need to step back and ask: what does it take to have a happy life? Who supplies housing food, transportation and meaningfulness in one’s life and do all those things have to be paid for with money? If government plays the role of supplying these other parts of life, then the job is less critical. But if government does not play a role, then the job is everything for the individual.
There are different stages, and cultural differences, but we can say for sure is that if a country has nothing, then the government cannot do much; if the country is in a rapid developmental pattern, they government’s role increases and as you get wealthier, people tend to think they can get around government, live without it. But this is a delusion; people think if there was no government, they could do what they want. But if there was no government, there would be chaos. The serious question is who goes into government and how they run the government. For example, my own country is democratic, more or less, and has elections. But if you go work for the government, once you are in the government, there is no democracy for you. You do not elect those you work for and in many cases you cannot have any imput..
With over 90% overall literacy rate in a bilingual environment, HK should be a perfect embodiment of diversity (East and West), however the reality is different; Finance and Commerce are the dominant economic structure, which becomes a career path for nearly 70% of local graduates. According to two recent graduate employment surveys of the top 2 universities in HK; research, technology, arts and humanities, are often sidelined as “impractical” career path.
This trace back to what some would say a sky-high land and rent policy, encouraging students to consider the ability to pay mortgage over the incentive to maximize talents when it comes to both education and career.
HK is often cited as “severely unaffordable” in global research reports, such as one by Demographia in 2011, which measures its median home price to be at least 12.6 times the annual median household income, while for UK, the number is 5.1, and for the U.S., the number is 3.
China’s and Hong Kong’s mortgage-to-income ratio stand at nearly 50%, which means — the property prices backdrop is a strong contributing factor for Hong Kong university students to pursue the only practical career path: finance, the most profitable one of all
Looking at Korea I believe there is something to say about the structure of the society. In a capitalist world, a few people hold the capital. These people seem to provide jobs for the public, but the well-paid jobs with good welfare are available for only limited number of people. Although one may have a talent in one area, for instance in art, one may have difficulty in pursuing what he/she is good at. Rather, they first seek decent job that pays the bill and secure the future with pension.
The concept of jobs among youth is quite diverse now. many young people are not only seeking jobs that pay salary (9/5 – white collar and all) but also many seeking entrepreneurships as part of their career, the problem is many young people do not have right kind of guidance on how to seek a career – almost always its a hype that they follow. For example, the computer science hikes in Bangladesh and India.
The most talented ones in Bangladesh study businesses and want to work in FMCG companies or banking sectors. We are lacking skilled teachers, our engineers are leaving and our government doctors are underpaid (so they often resort to spending more time on private practices). Besides that, politic-associated people get priorities in all sectors.
Perhaps it is better to have a civilian-military joint government (instead of a democracy), just to clean out corruption and open opportunities based on skills and needs. Right now we have two parties at gridlock – the two leaders have not exchange words for the past four years. We have a non-functional parliament; ruling party making decisions without consulting civil society or the opposition’s party.