Global News Blog
In happier times just a few years ago, US and Indian leaders trumpeted the shared cultural values between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies. It’s instructive that in a matter of a few days, we are at each other’s throats over an incident that is not exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Instead, an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York for allegedly falsifying documents that allowed her to illegally underpay a nanny she brought over from India. During the course of her detention, the Indian diplomat was “fully searched” by police, meaning at least a strip search.
This US-India relationship is historically young. Now that we are over the infatuation stage, we should absorb what the other is saying and admit that there are real differences in worldview between us, and that sometimes these differences highlight ugly things about ourselves.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know India? Take the quiz.
Thoughts for Americans to consider:
1. Americans are outraged at the way the Indian diplomat illegally exploited her nanny with wages far below New York’s prevailing wage. And then lied about it. But when is the last time Americans were really outraged over US tech companies bringing over Indians on special work visas and – illegally – paying them less than the prevailing wage? And then lying about it. Where are the arrests and strip searches of Silicon Valley CEOs? No one has the high moral ground on cross-border pay.
2. Americans are so busy trying to make the point that it’s standard operating procedure to strip search people after an arrest that we haven’t stopped to think whether that practice makes any sense at all. Set aside for a moment the emotions surrounding respect for diplomats or female modesty: If an arrest is a surprise, and doesn’t revolve around smuggling contraband or a violent crime, what are the chances really that a suspect has dangerous items hidden in her body? Currently there is a lawsuit brought by a US citizen who was strip searched, then cavity searched, then brought to a hospital to observe her bowel movement, all on suspicion she was carrying drugs. She wasn’t. This is the stuff of police states.
3. Try remaining consistent while arguing the US position on the Vienna Convention over Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor arrested in Pakistan, and the US position on Vienna protocols over the Indian diplomat. Maybe it can be done, but I haven’t heard it yet. Americans try to portray themselves as automatons before the law, as if the law often isn’t a matter of human interpretation where bias creeps in.
Thoughts for Indians to consider:
1. Picking this battle will not make the US respect India, in fact it is eroding the country’s credibility fast. The US is currently one of the biggest champions of an expanded role for India on the world stage. Americans start to reconsider that when it appears (to them) that New Delhi is more concerned with defending elite privilege than the country’s strategic big picture. Does India even have a collective sense of national interest? A common refrain making the rounds is that the US would never treat Russian or Chinese officials this way. To make the US more wary of crossing India, as some commentators there want, would require flashing some willingness to use hard power. Maybe that would win "respect" of a sort, but the relationship would come to resemble something more like that of the US and Russia.
2. India has an unacknowledged human rights problem surrounding its domestic workforce. Domestic workers have few real protections and exploitation runs rampant in the form of long hours, low pay, subhuman accommodations, physical/sexual abuse, and the lack of a fair system of dispute resolution. India needs labor laws to set some minimum standards, and to begin to move more people out of poverty. But the system is awfully convenient for a lot of people the way it is.
3. The removal of security infrastructure around the US embassy was the action of an enemy, not an angry friend. American officials are unlikely to make a big public stink about this for safety reasons. But it will be remembered as a reckless move. We should be able to disagree with each other without jeopardizing life and limb.
Math help for journalists:
1. The minimum wage in New York is $7.25/hour. At 40 hours/week, with roughly 4.3 weeks in a month, that equals $1,247/month, not $4,500/month. This mistake is all over Indian media and even in US outlets.
2. The legal obligation is for the nanny to be paid the prevailing wage, if it is above the minimum wage.According to the NY district attorney, that’s $9.75/hour, or $1,677 a month. If she worked for $573.07 /month as alleged, her per hour rate assuming a 40-hour week would be around $3.33/hour. However, she allegedly was forced to work “many more” hours. That means she was paid less than $3.33 / hour – maybe even less than $3/hour.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know India? Take the quiz.
Washington and New Delhi are in the midst of a damaging dispute after the US arrested one of India’s diplomats for failing to pay her nanny a minimum wage, among other offenses. From the perspective of many Americans and some Indians, it’s a puzzle why India is not simply embarrassed by the nanny’s mistreatment and has not quietly let this go. Partly it has to do with New York police allegedly strip searching its diplomat. But partly it’s the different vantage point India has on expatriate pay and its vast distortions in an age of globalization.
The rationales behind international pay are not as cut-and-dried as they might seem, as any American expatriate who has lived in the developing world knows. And the reputational risks stemming from determining expatriate pay will only intensify as companies globalize, workers cross borders to find jobs, and employees grow less tethered to an office.
Let's state upfront that minimum-wage law should be respected, and on that level, the diplomat has no real moral case. Period. Devyani Khobragade brought her nanny, Sangeeta Richard, to the US by allegedly falsifying visa documentation, saying that Ms. Richard would be paid a legal US wage. Instead, the New York district attorney’s office alleges that the nanny was paid $573.07 a month – or a little over $3 per hour if Richard worked only a 40-hour week. Richard allegedly worked “far more,” meaning she was paid even less by the hour.
Indian official mutterings in the press that the cost of paying US minimum wages would top the salaries of the diplomats are both untrue and inelegant. New York authorities indicate the prevailing wage for Richard’s work is $9.75 per hour, or $1,677 per month for a 40-hour work week. Ms. Khobragade’s pay, however, was reportedly $4,120. Admittedly, from the vantage point of what India is paying Khobragade – considered “high” by many Indians compared with what other civil servants are paid – a prevailing wage for Richard could be considered out of whack.
Aside from abiding by local wage laws, on what principle is pay supposed to be judged as fair across such vastly different economies: prevailing wage, home-country wages, cost-of-living adjustments? They all come with ethical and practical difficulties.... For the full story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.
A major US academic association has joined the boycott against Israeli educational institutions, marking a key victory for the Palestinian-led movement and instantly drawing fire from critics.
The 5,000-member American Academic Studies Association (ASA), comprised in large part of US university professors, announced Monday that its members approved a resolution to support a decade-old movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions in protest of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The resolution is nonbinding, but it is a significant victory for the growing movement.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has lobbied since 2004 to pressure Israel to correct what it says are injustices against Palestinians by disrupting collaboration between Israeli academic institutions and the global academic community. The rationale is explained in the movement’s call to action, posted on its website:
Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying [oppressive measures against Palestinians], or have been complicit in them through their silence. … People of conscience in the international community of scholars and intellectuals have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in their struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott.
Because the movement reinforces an explicit comparison between Israel’s policy and apartheid-era South Africa, the recent death of Nelson Mandela helped spur the ASA's vote, The Guardian wrote today.
The ASA said in a statement posted online that the resolution was passed by a roughly 2-1 margin in a vote by “the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.” Here is how ASA explained its decision:
The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.
Although the resolution calls for ASA members to cease collaboration with Israeli academic institutions, it is “primarily symbolic,” The New York Times reports. It is not binding for the association’s members and only targets Israeli colleges and universities, not individual scholars, who may continue working with their American counterparts on an individual basis.
But the resolution immediately drew angry responses from Israeli officials and American critics, CBS News reports, not least because it is the first such decision by an American organization, marking a clear shift of the movement’s momentum, which previously lagged in the US. (It has claimed several recent victories in Europe, most notably swaying celebrated physicist Stephen Hawkins to pull out of a high-profile conference, as The Guardian reported last May.)
Critics cried foul over what they said was the intellectual dishonesty and anti-Israel bias embodied by the resolution, receiving some fervent voices of support. The first viewpoint was passionately argued by Larry Summers during an appearance last week on the Charlie Rose Show:
“The idea that of all the countries in the world that might be thought to have human rights abuses, that might be thought to have inappropriate foreign policies, that might be thought to be doing things wrong, the idea that there’s only one that is worthy of boycott – and that is Israel, one of very few countries whose neighbors regularly vow its annihilation – that [Israel] would be the one chosen I think is beyond outrageous as a suggestion."
Speaking with The New York Times, Curtis Marez, ASA president and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California – San Diego, acknowledged that numerous states, including many of Israel's neighbors, are much more egregious human rights abusers, but said, “one has to start somewhere”:
He argued that the United States has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.” While acknowledging that the same could be said of a number of oppressive governments, past and present, he said that in those countries, civil society groups had not asked his association for a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz
The figure is “the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis” made by the UN, said Valerie Amos, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), according to a statement issued by the UN.
With no resolution in sight for the fighting, the multilateral organization predicts that the refugee flow will continue in the upcoming year. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that the humanitarian situation is dangerously close to slipping out of control, according to the UN statement:
“We’re facing a terrifying situation here where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not.… This goes beyond anything we have seen in many, many years, and makes the need for a political solution all the much greater.”
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
The appeal was presented by the two UN agencies spearheading the Syrian aid effort, OCHA and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the three years since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, refugees have streamed into neighboring Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. Their numbers are swelling relentlessly, creating refugee camps the size of cities, where hundreds of thousands struggle to eke out a living amid growing desperation. (Just one example of how dire the situation has become is the rising number of young Syrian women refugees being pushed into early marriage to gain even a semblance of certainty and protection.)
Observers were quick to point out that the UN’s record request is unlikely to be funded in full, with dim implications for hundreds of thousands of people in need of help. BBC correspondent Imogen Foulkes explains the uphill battle:
Despite the huge needs, the UN is unlikely to get all the money it wants. It is almost unheard of for a UN appeal to be 100% funded: this year's request for Syria is only 60% funded, the request for the Central African Republic stands at less than 50%.
The reasons for shortfalls are complex: some traditional donors (Europe, the United States) are struggling with financial deficits. And with some crises, Syria is one of them, donors are worried their money may end up in the wrong hands.
Here is a look at the UN’s appeal by the numbers:
2.3 million: The number of refugees who fled across Syria’s borders to neighboring countries since March 2011, according to the UN assessment.
4.1 million: The anticipated number of refugees in one year’s time, according to the UN forecast.
$4.2 billion: The amount the UN requested to assist Syrian refugees in the region in 2014, based on today’s appeal. The funds, if raised, will assist both the refugees and the communities hosting them in the neighboring countries.
20 percent: The portion of Lebanon’s population that is now comprised of Syrian refugees. Lebanon has borne the heaviest brunt of the refugee crisis. UNHCR estimates that close to 843,000 Syrians have fled to the country, whose population stood at 4.1 million in 2011.
120,000: The estimated number of Syrians who seek shelter in neighboring countries every month, according to UNHCR Spokesman Peter Kessler who spoke with the Washington Post.
6.5 million: The number of people internally displaced by the conflict who remain in Syria, according to the UN estimate. Reaching many of them remains a nearly impossible task for security reasons.
$2.3 billion: The amount the UN today requested to assist Syrian refugees internally displaced in Syria.
$12.9 billion: The full amount requested by the UN for humanitarian causes for 2014. Syria represents 50 percent of this amount. The rest is slated to be divided among a handful of other countries that include the typhoon-hit Philippines, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Congo, and Haiti.
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
While it is early in his term, Secretary Kerry’s turn could end up outshining Hillary Rodham Clinton’s time in Foggy Bottom, Mr. Rohde argues. “[I]t’s looking more and more possible that when the history of the early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again,” writes Rohde.
The comprehensive article does not stint on cataloging Kerry’s quirks, including what Rohde calls the “grandiosity and ambition that make Kerry so insufferable to some journalists and senators.” But Rohde credits Kerry for being the driving force behind a flurry of diplomatic initiatives including reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, brokering a deal with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, and holding high-level talks with Iranian diplomats.
The global warming lessons from Kiribati
Some Americans still wonder if global warming is real, but not the residents of the island nation of Kiribati, where rising water levels are expected to force a mass evacuation in 20 years, according to a story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Jeffrey Goldberg.
Kiribati is a collection of 33 islands in the central Pacific where nearly half the nation’s 103,000 residents live on a strip of land less than half a mile wide. Even before the rising ocean covers the available land, it will “infiltrate, and irreversibly poison, their already inadequate supply of fresh water,” Mr. Goldberg writes.
Island President Anote Tong is searching for a place to move his citizens and recently purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji. Mr. Tong wants to attract investment to his island nation but, as Businessweek notes, “It’s difficult to attract investment to a place that might soon drown.”
Is government beholden to the rich?
Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson takes a hard look at the popular notion that the White House and Congress are manipulated to serve major corporations and wealthy individuals. While acknowledging that the wealthy do get tax breaks and regulatory advantages, these “are small potatoes in the larger scheme of things,” Mr. Samuelson contends.
Using data from a recent Congressional Budget Office report, he argues that “what we actually have is government that’s beholden to the poor and middle class” and which redistributes money from the young and well-off to the “old, needy and unlucky.” Excluding interest payments, slightly more than half of government spending goes to individual benefits and health care with the elderly getting 60 percent of that nearly $1.3 trillion. Of the money spent on benefits and health care for the rest of the population, the poorest fifth of households received half the dollars spent.
Samuelson’s sobering conclusion is that “so many Americans have become dependent on government that consensual change is difficult and, perhaps, impossible.”
Why reporters in the US need protection
In many places around the world, the practice of journalism is truly dangerous, notes Paul Steiger, former editor of The Wall Street Journal and founder of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization that has won two Pulitzer Prizes.
“Reporters, editors, photographers, and publishers are still threatened, beaten, and murdered, often with impunity,” Mr. Steiger said in a recent speech while accepting an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While noting that reporters working in the United States are still much better off than colleagues in danger zones abroad, Steiger warned of “new barriers to our ability to do our jobs” imposed by the Obama administration. Among his worries: the use of phone records gathered by the National Security Agency to track down those who have been talking to reporters and the practice of barring news photographers from events attended by the president and then distributing government-paid photos. As Steiger said, “If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad, we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.”
Covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Extremely loud and incredibly close is how Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz describes his experience covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie since 2011 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story in Politico magazine is worth a read for the glimpse it gives of the governor who, at this early date, tops the list of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates in a recent CNN/ORC International poll.
Mr. Katz and his fellow local reporters get to see Mr. Christie in what he calls “revealing, off-the-record, end-of summer” visits to Jersey Shore bars and “profanity-infused Christmas party conversations at the governor’s mansion.”
The reporter admits that he and his colleagues are used as props by Christie. And, like the Obama White House, Christie’s press operation is on hand to produce its own videos of events and blast the nuggets out to media outlets. “My biggest competition is not other reporters; it is the man himself,” Katz says. “He is his own news outlet.”
Five weeks after Typhoon Haiyan hit The Philippines last month, the country's government released updated figures of its heavy toll, saying that more than 6,000 people have been confirmed dead.
Today's new figure was a result of continuing relief and recovery efforts in the hardest-hit areas, in particular the coastal city of Tacloban, according to this morning’s update by Maj. Reynaldo Balido, the spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the Associated Press reports. Nonstop work to sift through and clear the heaps of debris has slowly been increasing the tally over the past weeks, from around 3,000 reported in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.
The overnight tally pushed the overall death toll to 6,009 while 1,779 others remain unaccounted for, the government agency said, making the typhoon the deadliest natural disaster on record to hit the Philippines.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said that temporary bunkhouses and emergency shelters were being constructed and residents given cash in exchange for work, including repacking and hauling relief goods.
"We will provide materials to rebuild their houses, however, we stressed to the local governments that new shelters have to be built 40 meters away from the shoreline on high tide," she said.
The update comes as affected people gradually return to their home areas. A representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told The Wall Street Journal that makeshift houses have sprung up in areas leveled by the storm surge, and that the agency is working with local officials to help reopen more schools in time for classes to resume after Christmas break.
Even so, “provisions for life-saving assistance remain a top priority," the representative added.
A press release issued by UNHCR last week highlighted the continuing need for basic household items and the ongoing struggle to reach very far-flung communities:
UNHCR is working with the government and partners to focus on communities that have not received assistance. This includes some indigenous communities and to those situated in more remote locations.
Around 16 million people remain displaced by the typhoon, even as relief aid continues to pour in from near and far. And in the midst of the ongoing cleanup effort, survivors struggle to rebuilt their livelihoods and regain a semblance of normalcy. For them, recovery is just beginning.
Thomas Frank is something of an old-school, lunch-pails-and-union-halls liberal – at least as intellectuals go. So Chicago in the 1980s was his kind of town. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Frank recalls a city struggling with the end of a great industrial era: “The ruins that surrounded you on the South Side were the relics of a civilization that had built great things, that had made the world go.”
Now elite Chicago’s embrace of its working-class roots is strictly ironic. Frank sits at a trendy restaurant over “a winking parody of the Chicago-style hot dog: an assembly of sliced-up steak, ‘hot dog bun puree,’ ‘housemade pickles,’ a mustard-flavored wafer, and so on.” His lament: “In Chicago’s strangely tidy streets, the rest of the nation can get a glimpse of the future: a city that works – for a few.”
RECOMMENDED: Are you a savvy global traveler? Take the quiz
Cheer up, America, you still rule
The voice of The Economist is almost a throwback to an era when it felt like the grown-ups were in charge. (Of course, The Economist would observe that we’re only remembering it that way.) In the lead-off piece of a special report on American foreign policy, the magazine in effect tells America to quit moping and pull its socks up.
There are plenty of concerns, failures, and new rivals on many fronts, yes. The Economist is especially critical of the venture in Iraq led by George W. Bush. But it argues that Americans are too busy contemplating their own decline to stand up and notice that they still rule the world, and the world still needs that leadership. So stop with the whining jeremiads. “It is time to cheer up. The world America faces today may seem cussed and intractable, but the world America looked forward to shaping after the fall of the Soviet Union was never as pliant and welcoming as it imagined. And America’s strengths are as impressive as ever. On every measure of power it remains dominant.”
Chaotic on the surface, stable beneath
Ah, but it shall ever be thus, explains David Runciman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure,” he writes. A political scientist at the University of Cambridge, Professor Runciman cites the history of democracies lurching “from complacency to fury and back again,” swinging from “unwarranted optimism” to “unwarranted pessimism” with little room for voices in between.
The first to notice this was – who else? – Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 was “immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics.” But beneath the constant grumbling, rancor, and occasional panics of American democracy, Tocqueville noticed something else: “that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable.”
Native survival in the Amazon
Prospects are fairly dim for the Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon. Alex Shoumatoff, writing in Vanity Fair, describes his 10 days visiting what he describes as the most endangered tribe on the planet. Only some 350 members remain. Not enough, Mr. Shoumatoff points out, “to take on the madeireiros, the loggers who are killing their trees and their animals and are now within a few miles of here, and the thousands of other invasores who have illegally settled on their land and converted a third of their forest to pasture.”
He is greeted by an impassioned speech by an Awá father. “ ‘We are Awá,’ he says. ‘We don’t succeed in living with chickens and cows. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here.... We don’t want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.’ ”
Shoumatoff writes: “I think of all the speeches like this given by brave natives in the Americas over the last 500 years, who were trying to save their people and way of life and world but were unable to stop the inevitable, brutal advance of the conqueror and his ‘progress,’ and how this is probably what is going to happen here, to this remnant tribe in its endgame.”
A private-sector military
The rise and fall of Blackwater, the private security firm that rode the Iraq war to fame and fortune and then back down again, is chronicled by Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Businessweek – mainly from the vantage point of Blackwater founder Erik Prince.
A former Navy SEAL, Mr. Prince founded a training facility in North Carolina. When the Iraq war broke out, he tapped a network of fellow special forces veterans to quickly put together security teams for the US government. He credited his company’s explosive growth to the nimble agility that is the advantage of the private sector over the rigid bureaucracies of the official military.
The flip side of that virtue is that some critics blame Blackwater’s mistakes on poor training and preparation. Prince blames, above all, the self-protective State Department. “If I could send a message back to my younger self, it would be: Do not work for the State Department at all.”
RECOMMENDED: Are you a savvy global traveler? Take the quiz
- A roundup of daily news reports.
Hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Singapore’s ethnic Indian district Sunday, torching vehicles and hurling rocks at advancing police forces. While the unrest was swiftly subdued, it shocked this orderly city-state and sparked concern that ethnic and class tensions may be coming to a head amid widening income inequality.
The clash was sparked by the death of a 33-year-old Indian guest worker, who was hit by a city bus driven by a Singaporean, Bloomberg reported. Shortly afterward, a swelling crowd went on a rampage in the Little India neighborhood, a popular destination for South Asian workers on Sundays to eat, drink, and socialize.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Asia? Take our geography quiz.
A crowd of about 400 foreign workers, angered by a fatal road accident, set fire to vehicles and attacked police and emergency services workers late Sunday in Singapore's ethnic Indian district, injuring at least 18 people in a rare riot in the city-state.
…Dozens of police officers, wearing Kevlar helmets and carrying riot shields, [were] cordoning off the area late Sunday. At least two police cars were turned on their sides, and smoke rose from burned-out vehicles along the road where the riot took place.
The Wall Street Journal reports that riot police were able to contain the violence within two hours, and without firing any shots, according to a subsequent police press briefing.
Its modest size notwithstanding, the riot carried heavy implications for Singapore’s social cohesion, throwing in sharp relief the simmering tensions between ethnic Singaporeans and many thousands of migrant workers who form the backbone of the economy. Singapore’s economic boom over the past two decades swelled the ranks of low-paid, transient wage earners, whose numbers soared from 10 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to about 25 percent today, The Associated Press reports.
For some of Singapore’s long-time residents, the violence carried distant echoes of a racially charged riot that shook Singapore for seven days almost 45 years ago, in 1969, when clashes between the ethnic Chinese majority and Malay minority left at least four people dead and 80 injured.
The current riot was “a new thing, that’s definitely a watershed of a kind,” Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at National University of Singapore’s department of political science, told Bloomberg. “At a broad, strategic level, it is something new after a long time.”
The government’s reaction is likely to be stern, Mr. Singh predicted: “Singaporeans won’t tolerate this because Singaporeans are becoming very nationalistic.”
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that authorities will “spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law," according to Al Jazeera. As of Monday, 27 people were detained for their role in the violence, 24 of them Indian citizens.
It remains to be seen if the potential clampdown quells or further fuels the discontent.
Roy Ngerng, a blogger focused on social issues, said that last night’s clash might be just the first eruption of festering unease, unless the living and working conditions of transient workers improve, according to The Associated Press:
"The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show. … Perhaps, it is to be expected that when we pay such (a) pittance … to people who have helped build our country – our buildings and roads – and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions."
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Asia? Take our geography quiz.
I love this time of year.
Not for the onset of winter weather, seasonal decorations, and seasonal cheer. Nor for the time off around the holidays. Not even for the opportunity for material indulgence via a blitz of shopping bargains.
No, I love this time of year because it means the arrival of Black Pete, Krampus, and a host of other unique European seasonal traditions that are closely tied to the traditional Santa Claus, but never crossed the pond into the modern American concept of "Christmas."
And though they share the same heritage with the modern Santa Claus – all are rooted in St. Nicholas, the European saint – they present fascinatingly different ways to view current American custom. And they even suggest that those concerned over maintaining a "traditional Christmas" may not truly grasp what that idea really means.
Consider, for example, the Netherlands' "Zwarte Piet" – or in English, "Black Pete" – the assistant/servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa. Pete has been a seasonal companion of St. Nicholas since the 18th century, and is beloved by many Dutch as a piece of national folklore. But for many foreigners – and an increasing number of the Dutch – it's hard to overlook a key fact of the tradition: Pete is usually portrayed by whites in curly wigs and blackface, and bears a striking resemblance to classic racist caricatures of black slaves.
The argument over whether Black Pete is a hurtful stereotype or harmless Dutch folklore has been going on a long time. Indeed, the debate is now almost as much a tradition as Black Pete himself. This year, the Monitor's Peter Teffer reports that even the UN is getting involved, as the head of a group working for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called the character "offensive" and said Black Pete should be retired. At the same time, a Facebook page supporting Black Pete has garnered over 2 million likes.
A demon in the Alps
By contrast, the companion to St. Nicholas who is part of an Alpine tradition is far less controversial than Black Pete, despite the fact that this companion, Krampus, is indeed enslaved by the saint. But in this case, the slavery is not so concerning. You see, Krampus is a black, hairy, rod- and chain-wielding demon.
You may have heard of Krampus – who is also called Klaubauf, Pelzebock, Schmutzli, and a host of other names across the Alpine region. Once a foe to St. Nicholas until the saint conquered and shackled him, the tamed Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas during the saint's feast day, Dec. 6, and doles out switches and punishment as St. Nick gives out candy and presents. He's the scary heavy that keeps children in line, basically.
But he's become something of a celebrity in recent years. As the Monitor's Valentina Jovanovski notes, Krampus chocolates and figurines are very common now. "Krampus runs," wherein people dress up as the monster to scare onlookers, are becoming serious tourist attractions (and supply no small number of YouTube videos) – some 35,000 attended such a run on Dec. 1 in Graz, Austria. Heck, Krampus has even made appearances on US television, including on The Colbert Report.
And as the once obscure Christmas demon becomes a marketable commodity worldwide, a question arises: Is Krampus becoming too commercial?
Of course, much of the reason characters like Krampus and Black Pete are so fascinating is because they didn't make the jump into American Christmas culture, and thus seem – quite literally – very foreign.
But most of the traditions celebrated this season in the US are of similarly foreign heritage, and actually have little bearing at all on Christmas in its Christian sense. Christmas trees? From Germany. Caroling? England. Yule logs? Norway. St. Nicholas, who became Santa, the quintessential modern Christmas figure? He's a Turk.
You'll be able to read more about such traditions – and how they cast a different light on concerns about the "War on Christmas," a controversy almost as traditional as Black Pete – in the coming days. Sara Llana, the Monitor's Paris bureau chief, is currently in Germany's Black Forest, researching the subject for a story set to be published at the end of next week.
Assuming that Krampus doesn't get her first.
It could almost be a plot line from a story by surrealist 19th century Russian author Nikolai Gogol.
Visitors to Red Square in the past few days have found themselves confronted by a giant Louis Vuitton trunk, seemingly perfect in every detail and so big that it dominates Moscow's most iconic space and almost blots out other familiar features such as Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's cathedral, and the Spassky Tower.
And, like the bizarre oddities that crop up in Mr. Gogol's slightly absurd but profoundly perceptive tales, like The Nose and The Overcoat, the trunk has already prompted a great deal of consternation, confusion, indignation, and controversy.
RECOMMENDED: Do you know anything about Russia? A quiz.
The huge structure – some 100 feet long and 30 feet tall – is actually a replica of a Louis Vuitton trunk supplied a century ago to Russian Prince Vladimir Orlov, a member of the Czar's family. It's meant to house an exhibition of Vuitton luggage down through the ages that will run for most of December and January. Vuitton has a shop in Red Square's famous GUM department store, but no one is quite sure who authorized it to build the giant pavilion.
"Red Square is the sacred heart of the Russian state. There are some symbols that should not be trivialized or besmirched," raged Communist Party parliamentarian Sergei Obukhov, according to Russian news media.
"I am amazed that the presidential administration and the Federal Guard Service, both of which control the territory of Red Square, have permitted this outlandish display," Mr. Obukhov said.
Alexander Sidyakin, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, says he's lodged a complaint with Russia's anti-trust watchdog, asking it to look into whether the gargantuan suitcase violates legislation limiting the size and location of advertisements.
"This surely violates the law on advertising. It's definitely contrary to all our understandings of what is possible, and what is not, on the territory of Red Square," Mr. Sidyakin says.
"Just think, this box is supposed to sit there on Red Square until mid-January! People will come for traditional New Year celebrations, and they won't be able to see St. Basil's or the Spassky Tower because this enormous suitcase is squatting there, blocking out everything.... Also, this brand is a symbol of luxury. They really should have placed it somewhere else, if they had to build it. Not here, not now, and not for such a long time," he says.
Some Russian bloggers have already started having fun with the situation. One photoshopped image that's showing up on Russian social media – and is sure to infuriate Russia's still-numerous communists – shows Louis Vuitton's iconic livery cleverly transposed onto the mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
Louis Vuitton is promoting the upcoming exhibit as "a reflection of peoples' lives, their physical and poetic journeys."
But the company has yet to officially respond to the controversy their humongous trunk has set off among Muscovites.