Tomorrow Matters: December 2020

GIFT launched Tomorrow Matters a few months ago as part of an initiative to research and share local insights from Asia and beyond. It was motivated by the events of 2020: a year that challenged many accepted truths and punctured many of the illusions of competence built by advanced countries. Many people around the world have engaged in soul-searching to determine what went wrong, what must change, and what can be done.
We hope you have enjoyed reading Tomorrow Matters over the past few months, and that you continue to read our monthly list of articles into 2021. We will continue to build this and other offerings under the Tomorrow Matters umbrella. We appreciate you sharing this initiative with your networks!

South Korea

The Effects of E-Commerce

Coupang is the biggest player in South Korea's e-commerce sector. It's famous for its long, unbroken supply chain, where products move seamlessly from warehouse to customer, with deliveries being completed within 24 hours. The company claims to be a socially-conscious innovator, offering delivery workers secure jobs.
Max Kim argues that the opposite is the case. Tight schedules overload deliverypeople, causing traffic accidents and even deaths. COVID-19 has worsened these working conditions, revealing how Coupang prioritizes rapid delivery over employee safety.
Coupang is not alone in being accused of mistreating its employees: Amazon and China's e-commerce firms have been accused of poor treatment of employees and contractors. But Coupang's story shows that these problems are inherent in all e-commerce firms, and not just the biggest and brightest.


Can the Country Grow?

Malaysia is sometimes portrayed as a country stuck in the "middle-income trap". It has a decent standard of living, yet seems stuck, unable to reach the same economic heights as the advanced economies of the West and East Asia.
Sukudhew (Sukhdave) Singh, the former Deputy Governor of Malaysia's Central Bank, warns that the country risks not becoming a high-income economy even over the next twenty years. The controversy over the recent budget is a distraction from the troubling problems undermining Malaysia's growth prospects. Singh is concerned with trends like the loss of economic dynamism and slow growth. Weak productivity growth and fiscal management are the main reasons for the country's sluggish economy.
Singh cautions the reader that unless there is a revitalisation of economic growth and reform of public finances, Malaysia will likely see a ratings downgrade within five years. He presents some possible ways to reverse this economic trend, noting that Malaysia "can no longer allow institutionalised discrimination to be the norm in our society."

The Philippines

Understanding Digital Learning

Every country has struggled with remote learning and school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions may have been necessary, given the health circumstances and the initial lack of information, but they are decisions whose effects on children are increasingly becoming clear.
Jhio Jan Navarro argues that the shift to remote learning has highlighted the problems with education in the Philippines, which he notes is too focused on meeting requirements instead of truly educating the student: an issue relevant not just to the Philippines, but many places in Asia, such as Hong Kong. He writes that "Nuanced and reflexive understanding is replaced by an educational programming of sorts", that "no critical interrogation or unpacking of theories and concepts happens", and that remote learning is the epitome of seeing education as merely an effort to make "productive citizens."


A Different November Election

The United States was not the only country with a November election seen as a test of its democracy. On November 8th, the National League for Democracy won another overwhelming victory, winning roughly 60% of the seats in both houses of the country's legislature.
Understandably, much international attention has been focused on the conflict in Rakhine State and the persecution of the Rohingya people. Kyaw Phyo Tha's description of the election is indicative of a prevailing view within the country itself. In strident terms, Kyaw Phyo Tha argues that predictions and analysis in foreign media were countered by the actual results of the election.
Myanmar is a fledgling democracy that still faces many challenges, including a humanitarian resolution to the Rohingya issue. But in thinking about Myanmar and its democratisation, it is necessary to look empirically at what the Myanmarese people are saying.

Hong Kong

The Importance of State Capacity

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of state capacity. Countries whose governments have acted quickly and decisively have fared far better than countries that largely abrogated responsibility to either counter the pandemic or resolve the economic damage. Even Francis Fukuyama, the thinker best known for "The End of History", now notes the importance of the state.
Alex Lo argues that the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that a narrow understanding of democracy will not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Instead, state capacity — a feature seen in both democratic and non-democratic countries — is the variable determining a better or worse outcome.
These arguments were at the core of The Sustainable State, the book by GIFT Founder and CEO Chandran Nair, who has noted the parallels between the importance of state action and pandemic response in his own writing this year.
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