Tomorrow Matters: October 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of many prominent people, including many artists, performers and practitioners of the arts. One tragic death was of SP Balasubrahmanyam: a man beloved in South Asian communities, but perhaps not as well-known outside of them. More popularly known as "SPB" or "Balu", he was one of India's most well-known "playback singers": a voice artist who sings the songs later mimed by actors in Bollywood films. He recorded around 40,000 songs in languages like Telugu, Tamil, English, Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi.
In lighter news, countries throughout Asia are celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival this week, as people gather to see family, eat mooncakes, and view the full moon. Even in times of social distancing, people will be finding ways to celebrate. We hope you have a pleasant Mid-Autumn Festival!
This month, Tomorrow Matters looks at an array of stories with ties to history and culture, from attempts to revive Singapore's native animal populations to the historical background of the new "vegan sensation", the jackfruit.


A New Prime Minister. New Policies?

Perhaps one of the biggest political stories in Asia this month was the election of its new Prime Minister, Suga Yoshihide. His predecessor Shinzo Abe, as one of Japan's longest-serving Prime Ministers in recent memory, was a known quantity. A new Prime Minister means a potential new direction for the country: one of the world's largest and most important economies.
First, as Tase Yasuhiro for notes, Suga is known as a self-made man who has largely kept a low profile during his career in government (compared to Abe, whose father served as Japan's Foreign Minister).
Second, Kazuaki Nagata for the Japan Times outlines some of the policy differences we might see from the new Prime Minister, such as whether the pandemic would lead to a push for new administrative reforms. Analysts have particularly focused on his drive to digitise Japan: a struggle that has become clear with pandemic-driven social distancing measures.


The Tyranny of University Rankings

University rankings have become an integral part of the higher education conversation. A higher ranking means more prospective applicants, more funding, more research opportunities, and more prestige. But the companies that engage in ranking academic institutions are often Western and for-profit: would their work really be an objective evaluation of the strength of a university?
Dr. Sharifah Munirah Atalas argues that university rankings, especially in Malaysia, perpetuate a phenomenon of colonial capitalism, distorting how universities act and how societies think about higher education. She notes that "No academic attached to a higher education institution anywhere in the world is truly free if that university participates religiously in the ranking exercise." It's a reminder that, in looking at academic output, quality should beat quantity.


Reviving the Urban Jungle

Singapore announced in September that it would create a new network of nature parks in the north of the country. A drive to "green" Singapore, through cleaning up its waterways and starting active conservation efforts, is bearing fruit, as species like the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Banded Leaf Monkey (popularly known as the Raffles' banded langur) return from low population numbers in the city.
Chew Hui Man discusses how Singapore's relationship with its wildlife has changed in recent years, profiling many of the initiatives to protect Singapore's native species. Many of these animals' natural habitats have been, and still are, threatened by further economic development. Yet the focus on conservation and greenery provides benefits, not just for the environment but for Singapore's citizens as well. As Mr. Lim Liang Jim of the National Parks Board notes, Singapore is "a test case of how basically a small nation with very small hinterland...will be able to build a matrix of greenery, of nature so that it benefits people as much as possible."


Mediating Conflict Through Tradition

After almost two decades of conflict, Afghanistan is moving towards a peace deal, with talks between the government and the Taliban restarting in Doha earlier in September.
Broad national direction in Afghanistan is set by the loya jirga: a "national assembly", where an assembly of national, provincial and local leaders come together to consult, advise and reach consensus. The loya jirga is a modern invention, but one based on a long tradition of village jirgas that helped reach consensus and make decisions on topics. Hamid Hakimi, Nilly Kohzad and Abubakar Siddique write that the jirgas provide a chance for all parts of Afghan society to participate in the political system, and helped to preserve "Afghan sovereignty... at a time when most of the world was colonised by European powers".

Sri Lanka

A Super-Food's Origin Story

The jackfruit is currently being hailed as a "vegan sensation" by Western food writers. Prominent food chains like Starbucks and Pizza Hut are also jumping on the jackfruit trend. But in Sri Lanka, this tree-borne fruit — the world's largest — holds a deeper meaning.
Zinara Rathnayake writes on how the jackfruit is tightly connected to the country's history. Independence leader Arthur V Dias was called "Uncle Jack" as he planted jackfruit trees throughout the country during the British occupation. During the turbulent 1970s, the jackfruit was widely considered a "starvation fruit". In this personal recollection, Zinara writes of how the jackfruit serves as a powerful symbol of the remarkable resiliency of the Sri Lankan people.
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