Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.

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.

Media as a Catalyst for Structural Change in Pakistan – Thesis Abstract

I quite literally stumbled upon the prospects of doing a PhD when halfway through my official editorial internship at the Eastern Eye newspaper I was informed by my MA coordinator that I will still have to write a dissertation as partial fulfillment of my MA program as well. Normally a student is given a choice to do either of the two but as it turned out I ended up with a lot of extra work. However, what started of as a mere accident turned out to be a blessing as the learning, networking, contact building and field experience I acquired in the process made my masters experience truly grand besides opening a whole new career opportunity in academia.

I secured a first class on my dissertation supervised by the very able Dr. Brilliant Mhlanga who is a mentor and a great friend. Here is an abstract of my dissertation. Please feel free to post a critique in the comments section. Cheers!

Thesis title: MEDIA AS A CATALYST FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE IN PAKISTAN

ABSTRACT

This study is an investigation of the rise of the public sphere in Pakistan after the liberalization of media at the end of the Kargil conflict 1999, its implication for public participation in policy making and the potential for structural change of Pakistani institutions as a result. The basic notion of media theory is that politics and ideology of a country have direct consequences on the media power models in a society. If that is the case then does it logically follows that the reverse may also hold true? This is the premise of this investigation. To this effect problems of a colonial past unique to Pakistan and indeed South Asia are juxtaposed with the nature and development of Journalism in Pakistan before and after Independence in 1947 with particular emphasis on the political economy of newspaper and television media after promulgation of PEMRA Ordinance 2002. The study follows a qualitative research paradigm with an interpretive and constructivist epistemology by utilizing a combination of stakeholder mapping technique with a case study paradigm. The findings indicate that the paradigm shift in the mobilization of public opinion after 2001 has caused a significant amplification of public voices, that there is no doubt that private media has emerged as a vanguard for the publics especially under the lens of the Lawyers Movement in 2007 and that there is strong evidence to suggest that public policy is not as ambiguous and arbitrary as Pakistanis are led to believe. The assertions surmise that sorting the right balance in the nexus of power between a socially responsible and authoritative media can theoretically effect a similar healthy change in other institutions of the Pakistani State.

I will upload the link to the entire thesis very soon but if you have any specific queries you can email me directly at siddiqui.aayaz@gmail.com.

Living the East Meets West Dream

One of the many assignments required of us in my MA program was a feature that had to be of a publishing standard. The intention naturally was to pitch and try to get it published in a commercial UK based publication. My piece was on my experiences in Turkey in the summer of 2011.

I was quite excited when HuffingtonpostUK accepted my pitch and asked for a copy. Although it did not make it to their website I can hold my chest up high knowing they considered my story. Following is my final copy:

 

Setting foot outside my country for the first time to a place as wonderful as Turkey, to meet a girl I have only known through the internet seemed like a great idea when I was planning this vacation five months ago. Now punch-drunk-love for real on a bus to Kuşadası, my mind was exhausted from traveling and the experience of landing in Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen international airport.

After 20 hours of cheap airline food and excitement if you find out from a local travel agent that Bulgarian girls are known to con men to get their money, nobody can blame you for having thoughts of just dropping the façade and going back home.

I had simply taken a leap of faith and set out to find my free spirited friend from Bulgaria, our rendezvous point Istanbul! But now that I had made it to this rock, conquered the finances, navigated through the visa issues unique to Pakistanis, taken leave from work, now what? Will she even come?

I was going to spend four days exploring Kuşadası, an offbeat resort town on the western coast of Turkey before returning to Istanbul to meet her. Why couldn’t I have just gone to Dubai or Bangkok instead? As comical as my predicament sounded, especially being a Pakistani, it seemed too late to turn back now.

 

Kuşadası an offbeat trail

The hotel Asia Apart in Kuşadası didn’t look much and was the cheapest single room I could find on Expedia.com. But to my intense surprise this fact worked out for my benefit, for being small and family-run meant that the patrons were treated warmly as if guests in a household.

While visiting historic sites like Ephesus, St John’s church and St Mary’s shrine in the dry-sunny Mediterranean weather was something I had never done before, enjoying a cold lager by the harbor close to sunset and reflecting on these visits was truly an out of world experience for me (alcohol is prohibited in my country for all practical purposes).

Thus after the hectic events of the past few days it was finally beginning to feel like a vacation.

I have known Gergana for 10 years. We met in an online chat room and continued to stay in touch over emails. Skype came later on. We practically grew up together and even though we haven’t met I knew so much about this person at the other end of the world.

After four days of enjoying a utopian time in a rustic Kuşadası, it was time to return to Istanbul and pick my friend from the bus station.

This was it.

 

Feeling Just Right in Istanbul

Now Istanbul with its unique geography has an exotic aura unlike any other cosmopolitan city center in the world. I remember being nervous waiting in the arrivals section but when our eyes met, the abstract nature of our relationship vanished. We hugged and exchanged formalities, a bit dumbstruck at first that this was finally happening.

After freshening up we had a nice dinner in an upscale restaurant that had a magnificent view; facing the iconic Istanbul skyline, above rows upon rows of city lights, in the distance the two mosques shimmering in their mighty splendor and the Bosphorus strait separating Asia from Europe. Some blessed soul out there was blazing fireworks which were periodically lighting up the night sky next to a full golden moon. I hungrily absorbed every bit of it and realized that our story was turning out to be a blend of ‘East meets West’ in every sense of the term.

She told me she had just two days before returning back to Sofia or before her dad who was already apprehensive about the mysterious Pakistani phone codes in the bills discovered where she had been. Often at times I would guide her about in places we would visit, pay for her bus fare and among other things look after her. There were many amusing similarities between my strange European friend and Pakistani women. Nevertheless our odd combination would often raise eyebrows.

At other times there were small things about her that were both annoying and fascinating; like a strong distaste for throwing cigarette butts on the road or leaving empty bottles behind.

By far our best moment together was walking hand in hand, over the Galata Bridge when the weather was a nice blend of chill and sweat of a sleepy Istanbul summer night. And though our parting was rather prosaic, both of us having accepted the magic of it all lay in the moment, I had an emotional breakdown when I returned home.

An Afterthought

My family has a construction business back home and does rather well. I however have always known that my future lay somewhere else. Taking this vacation gave me the strength to leave it all behind and pursue a career in creative writing.

As for me and Gergana, it does not matter what happens next perhaps we will meet again perhaps we won’t. The important thing is that we shared some incredible moments. Our relationship is pure and free from deceit something only a lucky few get to experience in such a grand fashion.

 

The End