Sunday, October 12, 2014

the Hypocrisy of the "Foreigner Premium"

It is funny how sometimes a news item becomes a big one when it hits some sort of threshold.  A couple of recent ones comes to mind.  One was the confirmation of the first Ebola patient in Texas, and all the sudden all major international news outlet treat the event as an "escalation" of the disease as it is no longer confined to some poor African nations.  The other is a viral campaign by a Norwegian NGO that faked a wedding of a preteen to a 37-year-old.  The faked event caused an outrage in ways, as predicted by the NGO, in ways thousands of similar (and real) instances of it goes unnoticed in Africa and South Asia.

The two events noted above how one common thing.  It is that a situation, when replicated across borders in a more "developed," more "civilized" Western society with higher hygienic and moral standards, people become more alarmed of the situation than they otherwise would about the exact same thing when occurring elsewhere.  There is something deeply unnerving about the not-so-subtle indirect display of such racism.  Published in many different forms, it contributes to a collective brainwashing that some nations are undoubtedly better than others and thus less susceptible to man-made disasters.

While it is certainly true that the existence of some social institutions indeed introduce greater sense of order and security, such beliefs, taken to a more extreme extent, succumbs to simple, illogical, and brainless worshiping of foreign cultures and people in ways that are only detrimental to maintenance of positive outlooks for a particular people.  Here in Malaysia, it seems that the self-deprecating nature of the locals is never so far away, deeply entrenched in the way foreigners are treated, represented, and perceived.  Unfortunately, the economic implications of such is disastrous, to say the least.

The author spent his afternoon in a remote suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Mont Kiara with a friend for dinner.  At first sight, the neighborhood already distinguish itself.  Amid impeccably clean high-rise apartments nestle small neighborhood-style outlet malls filled with Korean supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.  Korean signs are everywhere, with the usual array of Kpop being blasted and meat being grilled over hot plates.  There are other pockets of Korean diaspora in the wider Southeast Asian region, but not one so uniformly prosperous...and Korean.

But the area was not just Korean, it was a hangout for foreigners in a much more high-end, institutionalized manner than what was available in the city center dominated by short-term expats seeing alcohol and graces of the flesh trade.  Not only are the stores and entertainment businesses catering to foreigners, the foreigners themselves are operating businesses and buying up expensive condominiums to display their residential permanence.  Yes, they are not short-term "visitors," they have here to stay.  And the result was the insane expensiveness of well, everything in the neighborhood.

Yet, as much as the foreigners seem to have claimed the neighborhood for themselves, the visual hollowness of their self-proclaimed dominance seems still a bit too evident.  Above the bustling restaurants and bars clamoring with well-dressed people not concerned with the average Malaysian's daily struggles sit floors and floors of empty offices, highlighting the bustles of the businesses below with their pitch-darkness.  The friend tells the author of the real estate bubble.  People are buying not to use, but to invest...and there is justifiable fear that the good times for investment is also gone...the bubble is ready to burst.

This seems to be the Achilles' Heel of blindly worshiping the foreigner.  Yes, the foreigners will congregate and pay a premium for basically, well, anything.  They will in the process drive up the value of the whole neighborhood, attracting the oh-so-many locals who want to up their own social statuses through mingling with foreign neighbors.  And yes, when all the rich foreigners move in, the public will take note, just like they have with the Ebola landing in Texas and the Norwegian child-marriage stunt.  But when problems occur in the process, the downfall will be even faster than the rise.

Ultimately, it is important to not overlook the commonalities of all humans, local or foreign, whether or not "civilized," "moral," and "developed."  That is the economic selfishness that characterizes all behaviors.  When times are good, everyone is happy, but when harbingers of bad omen becomes visible, don't expect the sympathies to outweigh logical sense.  If anything, all these foreigners thrived abroad for so many years precisely because they know when to go in and how to get out swiftly.  If anything, this should be the real "foreigner premiums" everyone should keep in mind and learn from.

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