‘Changing the world’ as a goal is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’

It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. The image is not intended as an attack on any religious belief. It has a symbolic and satirical purpose.

A few days ago I was forwarded an article written by Manal A. Khan on how our ambitious career plans in college appear on hindsight upon touching 30. I found it comforting that people my age share the paradox of going through education systems that hammer down the notion of zealous personal ambitions and save-the-world attitude while, upon hitting some semblance of career stability, realise that it’s the ‘process’ that really matters. In this piece I will establish a thread from her general message in to pursuing PhD studies.

PhD studies or work in the knowledge economy in general is like work in any other industry. I chose this for my commentary because the eccentric admission process, the high self-motivation and work flexibility are supposedly the hallmarks of independent research work, similar to some values mentioned by Khan. However one year down, I have emphatically realised how political research work really is. By political I don’t just mean ideological but many outside factors that shape knowledge creation.

Take research area as an example. I was very selective about choosing literature for my work on the Pakistani media industry. As an emerging academic of the global south, it is imperative that I borrow extensively from theoretical frameworks that are grounded on developing countries. This means working under supervisors with similar focus or at least expertise on developing countries. However, rarely do new PhD students get supervisors of their choice in this increasingly saturated and bureaucratised industry. As a result their frameworks and indeed research area may be directed by their supervisors.

Timeliness and location plays another important role. As a resource constrained actor, how do you study a community thousands of miles away? There are limitations to my data collection on Pakistan; the personal/guanxi culture, elite research paradigm and the expense of traveling to and fro from Hong Kong for instance. This effects what meaningful questions I can ask and expect to answer. In the beginning I was envious of my Chinese colleagues for whom it is much easier to collect data on China. I do realise now how incorporating Chinese literature adds value to my work even though it comes at the expense of foregoing data on some communities in Karachi. Lack of access much?

Finally, and this is my favourite; our personal lives do not stop while we are embarking on ambitious plans to ‘save the world’. Many PhD students are in the middle of their careers thus juggling a balance between social security (immigration), marriage and/or proposals, kids, parents, jobs and their research is a truism. This effects the choices mentioned above besides adding another dimension to how a researchers decision making is influenced.

A PhD graduate told me once that when he first started the program he had big plans ‘to move mountains’ and creating vital knowledge that would change lives of ‘ordinary people’. In reality the program simply trains you to carry out independent research work. That is it. It takes decades for scholars to refine their methods, develop a following and master an area to make some meaningful contribution. And, since research work usually is far ahead of its time it takes years for its practical impact to trickle down. The only thing within your control is perseverance for your work and strategic decision making to interact with outside influences. That is all you can reasonably expect from yourself. Setting a goal like ‘changing the world’ is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’. It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. I agree with Khan that great people didn’t set ‘changing the world’ in their bucket lists. They just continued to make good use of their strengths.

Occupy Central Hong Kong and 9mms of Karachi

I think nothing makes us feel more alive than pushing ourselves to the limits, dreaming big, digging for new experiences and getting romantically involved; the trials and tribulations of hard days work, animal attraction, wanderings in to realms that have no precedents but have rewards beyond our wildest imagination and equally intensive challenges in shapes and forms that cross the normal human threshold. At least in my philosophy, call me narcissistic and some have over the years, or even elitist but that is my point of view. For now.

I also happen to believe that these are the attributes of a good researcher.

So I’m in Hong Kong (HK) now folks the most vertical city in the world and one of the four asian miracles of the 20th century; grossly inflated real estate prices, thriving capitalist service economy, cheap sea food, pricey vegetables, centre of a political shit storm (tussles with China), rather behaved residents minus the wacky taxi drivers, massage parlours (yes there are many) and typhoons all, for an experimental doctoral program that spans across, Asia and Europe.

However this post is not going to be about my experience with sushi buffets, dancing fire dragons manned by 50 strong or selfie sticks (yes there are devices now that makes selfie taking more professional. You better believe it!). This post will attempt to bring a perspective of a Karachiite to the massive street protests staged by HK students against their government for universal suffrage and democracy, a right they believe is being denied to them by the central government in China.

One of the thousands of posters placed around HK. - Photo TAC
Some of the thousands of posters found all around HK these days – Photo TAC

I left for HK from Karachi on the afternoon of August 31. You would recall that prior night, Imran Khan and the maschismo, Allama Dr. Sir. Tahir UlQadri’s revolutionary and freedom marches had boiled to a hostile standoff with law enforcement agencies in Islamabad. Tear gas, rubber bullets and aerial firing were used to ward of protestors. The political climate once again brought the affairs of our fragile state to yet another precarious moment in time. Media outlets, political parties, including the omnipresent establishment, scrambled to score points; revising stances and shifting allegiance to suit the perceived winds of change.

As is customary in such volatile times – and there are many in Karachi, so many in fact that volatility has lost its traditional sense of meaning – fuel stations are closed, cell phone services are terminated, law enforcement presence is increased, shops and markets are shuttered, at least during the day and the ones that remain open for business are coerced by political parties. To say that the KSE index drops down would not be enough as the working class finds it difficult to report for duty when public transport is suspended thereby affecting the entire economy. The whole fabric of society is thus affected when people chose to stay under the safety of their homes. The massive class divide becomes apparent even here, when the silent majority of urban Karachi, politically exhausted remains homebound and waits for the chaos to pass as it usually does, while the poor and zealous take active part. Some get killed and become collateral in these recurring events which are essentially power struggles among the elites.

So when I visited the protest sit-in at HK’s central financial district I was overwhelmed by the sheer level of organisation among the youth, which forms the bulk of the Occupy Central movement, and their resolve. The demonstrators that fluctuate between 10 to 50,000 have vowed to protest peacefully and not affect the routine functioning of the government. Every morning they collect and clear the trash that has accumulated on the site, distribute food and water, provide gas masks and goggles for new arrivals and keep a steady spray of water to account for the heat.

Protesters at the Admiralty
Protesters at the Admiralty – Photo TAC

The general feeling of camaraderie becomes apparent when you participate in the hundreds of small conversations that are happening all over the site. Hong Kong like Pakistan was once a British colony and follows a legal system very similar to the common law system that Pakistan follows. In 1997 when the British formally handed the territory back to China, it was under the condition that the state would have universal suffrage and enjoy complete autonomy under a ‘one-country-two-system’ policy. So while HK has its own mini-constitution, independent judiciary, separate currency, law enforcement, electorate and legislators, it’s foreign policy and defence is under the control of the PRC government. The protests essentially are a part of the evolving nature of the executive authority of HK as it attempts to maintain its distinct identity while remaining part of China.

But I won’t start a political commentary here. Because, we students of political science are trained to look at matters objectively and as external observers which often dehumanises the process of change. Let me explain…

As I made my way through the heart of the protests, I saw children, adults, students alike camped together on the roads; sleeping, chatting, doing their home work etc. all very solemn however in the awareness that the future of their country and culture is at stake and genuinely believing that they can and will change the decision of the government. It didn’t matter that they represent a small percentage of the 7 million people living in HK, or that the PRC government and the Chief Executive both have announced not to budge on their initial ruling of vetting the candidates for the country’s highest office first by NPCSC. It dawned upon me how little credit I always give to the collective understanding of the people, always coming with prescriptions where in fact collective reasoning may prove just as beneficial if not more. Maybe this is what democracy stands for. The idea of a philosopher king following Plato’s school of thought which is a characteristic of authoritarian rule presumes an elitist perspective on governance. Maybe the existing order of HK represents this rule and maybe the state of HK has grown out of this form of governance?

Its a protest, not a party! - Photo TAC
Its a protest, not a party! – Photo – TAC

These people are not the sheep that follow greener pasture trails or the fear of the whip, or that most destructive force, ‘the wrath of God’ unlike in Pakistan. There belief is supported by prominent local scholars of law and urban studies who are also the leaders of this movement. So there are flyers shared online, on social media platforms and distributed as hard copy that attempts to answer questions and educate an average Hong Konger; Why is this crisis taking place? Who are the players involved? What can we gain if they meet our demands? What is being done to maintain civility, law and order? There is even a path within the massive sit-in that ensures thoroughfare and everyone respects it…

In stark contrast to the 9mm pistol demonstrations, in Karachi that bring the entire city life to a grinding halt, or those festive concerts and rhetorical performances that promise to change the country overnight. Some people have argued that brutal force is the only way to get anything important done in the city. But have we forgotten, the May 2005 earth quake where citizens of Karachi made a peaceful and collective effort to send massive supplies to effected areas? When women, men, policeman, officers and politicians alike joined hands without any prejudice towards a common cause? Its a pity that it takes a natural calamity for us to act civil.

And yet, I am writing now to draw parallels so that we may also aspire to be citizens of Karachi in a real sense. Take ownership of our actions and our community heavens know our bread and butter depends on it. It may take a generation to realise it but the awareness for the process must start now! It is possible yet.

Between the thoroughfare - Photo TAC
Thanks for coming, sit with us, fight with us – Photo TAC

Statement of Intent – PhD program at Hong Kong Baptist University

A poignant lesson I learnt in my academic, professional and personal development is that life should not be perceived as a long-term business plan, contrary to what we are dispassionately taught since childhood in Pakistan; prior to my Masters I would never have imagined a career in academia given my temperament but it was a series of anachronistic events that not only invoked in me a dormant passion for the knowledge economy but also convinced me of it’s logic.

I always had a penchant for the untold stories, the underdogs and the way society evolves with progress. So a chance trip to Turkey after saving enough money, to meet a pen pal became a life changing experience in 2011; a festive blend of East meets West, Turkey “opened my eyes,” to the vast similarities among different cultures and human nature in general. It made me understand that people everywhere have the same desires and wants. It also smashed some inaccurately construed perspectives about different cultures I had acquired through popular television.

At that time I was planning to enroll in a postgraduate program in management to complement my exiting faculties – earlier I had planned and secured Rs. 60,00,000 (~ $67,000) for a marketing campaign at Ahmed E.H. Jaffer Foundation’s boarding school of excellence The Hub School, and prior to that given the unprecedented task to revamp the business model for the website Brandsynario.com at Synergy (Pvt.) Ltd, notwithstanding pressure to join the family business full time – but upon my return I decided to pursue a burgeoning interest in journalism. I reckoned that communication sciences would inculcate in me a strong core understanding of reaching the audience; which is far more important for understanding marketing communication, particularly in an evolving pubic sphere in Pakistan where importance of elections, fundamental human rights and free speech have only recently gained traction after media liberalisation.

Thus communication science is a career path I have followed rigorously and whole-heartedly since. 

To learn more in this field I pursued a master’s program in Journalism and Media Communication at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, United Kingdom. Participation in the event coverage of the first St Albans Film Festival, internship at the Eastern Eye – Britain’s foremost weekly for South Asian community in Central London – and the MA thesis on Pakistani media made me cognizant of the peculiarities of South Asians all over the world and the dearth of available literature in the field. 

My dissertation and successive PhD proposal are the two most cherished culminations of my master’s program. The dissertation report for which I spent my entire nine day holiday in Pakistan conducting elite interviews, reaching out to friends at Interflow Communication and Nielsen Saudi Arabia among other venues, taught me the intricacies of conducting rigorous research. It compelled me to dig deeper, read more and collaborate more.

My lucky break came when Professor Anatol Lieven at King’s College agreed to see me last November to offer his critique of my master’s thesis. My ambitions in academia gathered momentum from then onwards. Anatol was kind enough to introduce me to Professor Mathew McCartney at Oxford University who upon my insistence has agreed to co-supervise a doctoral program subject to enrollment at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. However the strongest support for my PhD proposal came from Professor Daya Thussu at University of Westminster, Professor Pradeep Chhibber at University of California, Berkley and Professor Colin Sparks at your esteemed institution.

Upon my return from UK, I made a tough call to put on hold a lucrative position at an advertising firm to develop my proposal further. It was self-learning in its essence, a trait picked from the excellent faculty at Hertfordshire. Now that I apply for funding while I work at The News International (Jang Group) and prepare to teach media theory at SZABIST this fall, I know that every decision I take must bring me a step closer to a doctoral program.

If given the choice between research work purely in United States and United Kingdom or, partly in Hong Kong and United States, I would chose the later without hesitation; since media systems are inextricably linked with the political identity of a country it makes sense for Pakistani academics to study communication systems in countries such as China, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and India. Pure liberal democratic templates adopted from mature democracies are bound to fail in the global south. There is credibility in my statement; of the five telecommunication companies – the only industry where private foreign investment is officially allowed – operating in Pakistan, four are owned by investors in Russia, Middle East and China. It is highly likely that in future developments in the media industry of Pakistan, such nations will play an important role. The need of the hours thus is to study best practices in both schools of thought and that is why a dual degree program offered at HKBU is of intense interest for me.

My decision to apply for a PhD program was not an epiphany neither was it something I always knew I would take since childhood but something I have actualized over the years. It has been a journey of self-discovery and my four years of experience within the industry, in Karachi and London, puts me in a unique position to undertake this research. I sincerely hope that the admission’s committee will consider my application strongly.

 


I wrote this statement somewhere last summer to contest for a very eclectic and experimental four-year PhD program based across continents in Hong Kong, China and the United kingdom. And much to my bewilderment I was accepted for a full-funded position in Communication Studies in this incredible part of the world! Perhaps my statement will serve as a rough guide or even inspire fellow Pakistanis to dream big, cash in on their strengths and develop the foresight to traverse where others hesitate. I consider myself very very lucky.

 

The Rise of the Global South

The emergence of the Global South has become an increasingly popular colloquialism within the academic community. It refers to most of the countries of Africa, Central and Latin America and Asia as opposed to the Global North which makes up the developed part of North America, Europe and East Asia.

The term, traditionally synonymous with the third world now represents countries that have experienced rapid economic growth in the past three decades, even during times of recession. At present, if we consider an obvious indicator of growth – that South-South economic cooperation now exceeds South-North cooperation by $2.2 trillion i.e. over one quarter of global trade- and by UNDP 2013 estimates that 80% of the world’s middle class will be living in developing countries – it can be assured that the South will have a tremendous impact in reshaping international political and economic systems.

The launch of the New Development Bank (NDB) last month by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa collectively known as the BRICS nations is one such impact. The move is being looked upon as a practical measure to counter shortcomings of existing world development institutions – specifically the World Bank and the IMF –  which through their prejudice for the US and European national interests and harsh constitutionalities have always been a bone of contention for emerging economies.  

But the bank is a small chapter in a wider debate surrounding shifts in the global balance of power. This shift is not simply the result of better policies on infrastructure development, research investment and trade; it marks a broader ideological evolution in the world’s understanding of such systems by learning from South-South direct intellectual and cultural dialogue which was tradtionally always contextualized through the West.  

In a recent Time Magazine editorial Wall Street’s Values Are Strangling American Business, Rana Foroohar talks about how in highly globalized capitalistic markets, such as the US, the need to please the shareholders outweigh the needs of long term sustainable growth of companies. This result in markets influencing businesses more than vice versa; against what capitalist system originally sought to achieve. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 thus has increased the grasp of finance on corporate America.

Faroohar goes further by citing a McKinsey Global Institute report, that by 2025, 7 out of 10 largest global firms will be from emerging economies. Moreover, they will primarily be family owned!

Although the significance of the Global South gets lost in our World’s multipolar political rehtoric in the public sphere, the knowledge economy operates at a scientific level. Thus in conferences and lecture rooms, academics from the Global North are debating on poignant lessons that can be gleaned from researches based on South-South interactions.

For instance, Kanchan Chandra, Professor of Politics at NYU, taking Indian ethnic politics as a case study in her paper Ethnic Party and Democratic Stability, suggests a model that counters conventional wisdom that ethnic divisions destabilize democratic institutions. In fact she proposes ways in which certain dimensions of ethnicism in state institutions can enhance their efficacy for South Asian democracies.      

Similarly, Hearns-Branaman, lecturer at National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok, on defining the political economy of media of China writes that post-1970s period has seen all Chinese news media become completely financially independent from the government while remaining an integral part of the government and adherence with the Communist Party’s line. This is in stark contrast to the widely held dystopian beliefs about media in China.

Such papers are a miniscule glimpse of the large body of excellent work that is being produced through South-South interactions. More importantly they have even greater significance for developing countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Chile, Poland and Nigeria where template solutions adopted from mature democracies are deemed to fail; where indegenous solutions along the lines of similar transitioning democracies are more relevant.           

If we take the example of our media industry, it’s not mere coincedence that out of the five telecommunication companies operating in Pakistan – perhaps the only area of the communication industry where private foreign investment is officially allowed – four have investors in Russia, Middle East and China. Furthermore, it is widely believed that the decision for electronic media liberalization was influenced by the vibrant Indian media.

It is highly likely that in future developments in our media industry, such nations will play an important role. It is thus imperative for Pakistani scholars and policy makers to rethink their position in the globalsphere by looking beyond the West. Three of the BRICS economies share our part of the continent and we share borders with two of them. There are fascinating propsects for infrastructure development, trade, cross-cultural dialogue and knowledge transfer usually dominated by a North-South aid paradigm.

However, we must approach the developing world with cautious optimism. Verily, unlike the North the political systems in the South are rather diverse and volatile. But Dr Brilliant Mhlanga, a research fellow at Brown University International Relations Institute, who sees interesting comparisons between the ethnic issues of Pakistan and South Africa says that that itself should be seen as a point of strength than a weakness. If anything, it (NDB) buttresses the view of ‘Unity in Diversity’, as opposed to unity in oneness.

For now we should see the NDB as coming to fruition of ideas whose inception dates back to the Bandung Conference of the 1950s. Perhaps, the non-alignment movement is relavent more than ever now.