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Dateline Asia: 14-city Dash across East and Southeast Asia

July 2, 2008

By Katherine S. Hunter

What began as a trip to finalize arrangements with Asian host organizations for 18 new Luce Scholars ended up providing a memorable and kaleidoscopic window into the vitality of Asia. A 14-city journey in East and Southeast Asia in May and June provided on-the-ground exposure to timely events in the countries in which the Luce Scholars will spend their fellowship year starting in August 2008.

The first stop, Jakarta, coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the May 1998 events leading to former President Suharto’s resignation and heralding the period of “reformasi” and decentralization that has transformed everyday life for Indonesians. For those in the U.S., isolated from the regional grouping of ASEAN, the media provided extensive coverage of the recent appointment of the U.S.’s first-ever ambassador to ASEAN, which maintains its secretariat in Jakarta. My visit occurred just after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma and, as the devastating impact became more visible, ASEAN’s leadership was grappling with the dilemma about how to respond to events in Burma and the country’s military rulers’ unwillingness to allow foreign relief workers into the country.

I visited China in the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and observed the unprecedented outpouring of national support. Like its counterparts across the globe, Chinese media were filled with articles on the relief efforts as well as first-person stories of both victims and survivors. The most visible expression of China’s attention to the earthquake was the nation-wide observance of 3 minutes of silence for the victims on May 19th, one week after the cataclysmic event, initiating three days of national mourning. Leading up to the 2:28pm commemoration, Chinese poured out of office buildings; due to meetings, I personally observed the 3-minutes of silence while “on the road” in Beijing ” a noteworthy event as all vehicles stopped enroute on a major thoroughfare. Driving around Beijing for the meetings with Luce Scholar host organizations, I saw the mammoth “Birdsnest” stadium for the Olympics and the venue for aquatic events ” seen in person, even more impressive than any photograph has conveyed to this point.

My stop in Korea coincided with the start of demonstrations against imports of US beef, a massive display of citizen expression, and orchestrated with police and police buses cordoning off the demonstration area. Being on the streets of downtown Seoul, one is aware of the close proximity of the Blue House, the official office and residence of the country’s president, to other offices and hotels. The events provided an extraordinary endnote for one of the current Luce Scholars just finishing his year in Asia with a placement at the National Human Rights Commission.

The stop in Hong Kong SAR took place just prior to the “Black Rains,” rain exceeding 70 millimeters per hour, the heaviest since records have been maintained. The torrential rains caused landslides and major flooding across the territory of 262 islands. This reminder of the importance of the environment to Hong Kong creates more timeliness in the placement of one of next year’s Scholars at Hong Kong’s Business Environment Council. Compared to my visits in past years, when so many female domestic workers from the Philippines used Hong Kong’s labyrinth of walkways for eating and visiting on their days off, there was a more visible presence of Indonesian women on the streets ” a reflection of the changing economic scene with Filipina domestic workers now too costly for the Hong Kong market. This changing dynamic was pointed out by a former Luce Scholar from 2006-7 who spent a year with the Visayan Foundation in the Philippines and, before leaving for law school, spent another year with an NGO in Hong Kong that serves trafficking victims.

In Cambodia, Siem Reap has been transformed by major investment in hotel development with a record 4,000 rooms in 5-star hotels and more under construction ” far surpassing the 600 5-star hotel rooms in the capital of Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is also home to two new museums opened in late 2007. One is the new $15million Angkor National Museum, built with Thai investment. The Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum, supported by Japanese investment, focuses around 874 Buddhas from a single excavation and will host of one the new Luce Scholars. A Cambodian observer noted that one of the most important aspects of the museums is the preservation and presentation of the country’s history for Cambodians since so much was lost during the Khmer Rouge period. In Phnom Penh, the Phnom Penh Post has a new publisher and is expanding from 32/pages per month to 480 pages/month and will host its fourth Luce Scholar.

Toward the end of this “Asian journey,” I visited the Singapore International Arbitration Centre which will also host an intern in the coming year. Before departing the meeting in SIAC’s headquarters in the City Hall building, we stood on the balcony from which the Japanese military surrendered and from which Singapore’s independence was declared. The first office of former President Lee Kwan Yew is in this building, providing insight into Singapore’s short history as a city-state. A final reminder of the prominence of ASEAN within the region ” barely familiar to most Americans – another Scholar will be placed at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy’s Asian Competitiveness Institute, which includes the regional grouping in its research.

Stops in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam’s Hanoi, Thailand’s Bangkok, and Japan’s Yokohama and Tokyo showed equally vital and dynamic development. These “snapshots” from across the region are only a sampling of what’s ahead for the 18 Luce Scholars embarking on their 10-month fellowship in Asia. For young American leaders expected to rise to positions of prominence over their lifetimes, but without yet having significant Asia experience, exposure to Asia’s diverse cultures is truly a chance of a lifetime.

The Luce Scholars Program is a project of by the Henry Luce Foundation. The Asia Foundation has administered the Asian portion of the program since its start in 1974. Since that time, over 500 young American leaders have participated in the program and many have gone on to assume positions of leadership in their fields ranging from the arts, media, and medicine, to law, public policy, and the environment. The program is designed to increase understanding of and appreciation for Asia among a select group of young Americans every year.

Kim Hunter is The Asia Foundation’s Luce Scholars Coordinator.

Related programs: Leadership & Exchanges


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